Were the Deuterocanonicals Ever a Part of the Jewish Canon of Scripture?

Isaiah in Greek

The biblical canonization process within Judaism is quite complicated. It is frequent for Protestant scholars to take Josephus’ use and list of Scriptures as representative of the basic canon of Pharisaic Judaism–which led to rabbinic, and eventually modern Judaism–arguing that the canonization process within Judaism predates the time of Jesus. Although the Council of Jamnia (or Yavneh) [end of the first century A.D.] is NOT likely the place where the Jewish biblical canon reaches its final form, that meeting did address the canonical status of certain books—Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs.1 Scholars remain divided about the closing of the Jewish biblical canon. In my opinion, it seems likely that it is even later that the canon becomes more fixed within Judaism.

 What complicates matters further is that different groups within Second Temple Judaism apparently considered different books canonical. Although the biblical books used by the Pharisees is likely identical to Josephus’, which looks like the Old Testament of most Protestants, and, it should be noted, the Hebrew Bible (Tanak) of the majority of contemporary Judaism, this is not for certain. Sadducees, on the other hand, had a much smaller list of biblical books (only including the Penateuch, according to New Testament evidence). It is difficult to determine what canon was in

Sirach from the Cairo Genizah

use among the Jews at Qumran—where Esther has not been discovered but Tobit and Sirach from the deuterocanon have been found (in Aramaic and Hebrew no less)—but it appears they likely considered some of their own community’s texts as canonical.2 The question of canon at such an early stage, however, is complicated by the fact that we are not even sure what a canon would mean at that point within Judaism. Would they have understood those texts as divinely revealed, as inspired? And what would inspiration mean for them? Would there have been a canon-within-a-canon? These questions remain unresolved.

We do know, however, that certain Jewish communities did in fact use the Septuagint (LXX) translation of the Bible, and that they included the deuterocanonicals as Scripture. Although far from certain, the Book of Sirach appears to have been according canonical status among some of the early rabbis (more on this in a future post). A recent discovery of medieval manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah has shown that Jews in the medieval period in Africa, and throughout the Byzantine Empire, continued to use the LXX (more on this in a future post). To this day, Ethiopian Jews use the LXX as their Bible, including the deuterocanonicals. Some Jews in antiquity used, and some Jews today continue to include the deuterocanonicals in their Scripture. More on this in future posts.

Fragment from the Cairo Genizah

For Further Reading:

Blenkinsopp, Joseph. “The Jewish Scriptural Canon in Cultural Perspective.” In The Canon Debate, ed. Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders, 53-67. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002.

Davies, Philip R. “The Jewish Scriptural Canon in Cultural Perspective.” In The Canon Debate, ed. Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders, 36-52. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002.

Mason, Steve. “Josephus and His Twenty-Two Book Canon.” In The Canon Debate, ed. Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders, 110-127. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002.

Sundberg, Albert C., Jr. “The Septuagint: The Bible of Hellenistic Judaism.” In The Canon Debate, ed. Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders, 68-90. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002.

VanderKam, James C. “Questions of Canon Viewed through the Dead Sea Scrolls.” In The Canon Debate, ed. Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders, 91-109. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002.

Yamauchi, Edwin M. “Josephus and the Scriptures.” Fides et Historia 13 (1980): 42-63.

  1. If we trust the later rabbinic sources on the matter, which I think are generally trustworthy. []
  2. At Qumran, copies of Tobit were found in both Aramaic and Hebrew, and Hebrew fragments of Sirach were present there. Hebrew portions of Sirach were also found at Masada and in the Cairo Genizah. []

50 thoughts on “Were the Deuterocanonicals Ever a Part of the Jewish Canon of Scripture?”

  1. Excellent post, Jeff. I’m not very familiar with divergent Jewish canons, so this is helpful.

    It’s fascinating and frightening how a lack of established authority leads different groups into their own ghettos of isolation as to what Scriptures they’re being molded by. This lack of visible unity in the canon is a partial illustration (of course some of the disunity is due to historical accident) of how sin fragments the family of God from the moment Adam and Eve denied God’s Fatherhood in Eden.

    Keep it coming!

  2. “the Book of Sirach appears to have been according canonical status among some”

    Did you mean “accorded”?

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