The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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The Hebrew Canon

The Old Testament was originally the sole property of the Jewish people, who considered it as a collection of their sacred scriptures. Part of the confusion between the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches as to which books actually constitute the canon stems from the Jewish people themselves.

We know that the earliest edition of the Bible consists of only the Torah or the Pentateuch. Up to about 400BC these books are the only contents of the Jewish Bible.[a] We know this for a fact due to an accident of history. The Samaritan sect broke away from orthodox Judaism around 400BC. To this day, the Samaritans recognized only the Pentateuch as sacred scripture. Obviously the rest of the books in the Old Testament were accorded canonical status only after 400BC.20 The books of the prophets (Nebhim [b]) were accepted as canonical around 200BC, while the books of the writings (Kethubhim [c]) became so only around AD90. [1]

The Septuagint

The Jews of the diaspora, who fled Judah after the fall of Jerusalem 586BC, were widely distributed throughout the Mediterranean and the middle east. A significant segment of these had chosen Alexandria in Egypt as their home. By the fourth century BC the Jews there had largely lost much of their capability to communicate in or understand their original tongue, Hebrew. They adopted the language of the area, which was Greek. The need to understand their religious roots was strong and so the Hebrew Bible (then consisting only of the Torah) was translated into Greek. This translation was called the Septuagint.

The story of how the Greek translation of the Bible came to be called such can be found in The Letter of Aristeas. The document, which purports to have been written around 250BC by Aristeas, an official at the court of King Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-246BC). The letter was written by Aristeas to his brother, Philocrates, to explain how the Torah came to be translated in Greek. King Ptolemy was a great patron of literature and it was he who inaugurated the great Library of Alexandria, one of the world's cultural wonders. According to the letter, King Ptolemy wanted a translation of the Jewish Law and sent Aristeas to Jerusalem to meet the high priest, Eleazar. Having been lavished with fabulous gifts from the visiting delegation, the high priest chose as translators six elders from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. These seventy two scholars were then sent to Alexandria where they laboured for seventy two days on the island of Pharos translating the Bible. At the end of seventy two days, seventy two voices shouted "Amen!" and seventy two translations were completed. When they compared their translations with each other they found complete agreement among them, proving that the work was done under God's inspiration. From their number, came the word Septuaginto, which is Latin for seventy. The Septuagint is also sometimes referred to by the roman numeral for seventy: LXX. [2]

The Letter of Aristeas reads like a myth and is a myth. It was not even written during the reign of King Ptolemy. Most scholars believe that it was written around 100BC by a Jewish apologist in Alexandria. Probably the only truth we can derived from the letter was that the Torah was translated into Greek for the benefit of Greek speaking Jews during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus during the third century BC. [3] For the rest of the Greek Old Testament, henceforth together with the Pentateuch called the Septuagint, internal evidence suggests that it was the work of many different translators working in many different places at different times. [4]

It is important to note that the Septuagint was the Bible to the early Christians and to the authors of the New Testament. [5] It was to the Septuagint that the gospel writers look for prophecies and allusions to the coming of Jesus Christ, a fact that will become important in our discussions regarding Jesus

As mentioned in chapter three the arrangement of the Christian Old Testament is taken from the Septuagint, which differs substantially from the Hebrew Bible. The arrangement of books led naturally to the questions of canonicity. The books today referred to as the Apocrypha are included in the Septuagint but omitted from the Hebrew Bible. In the Greek Bible, these books are in no way differentiated from the rest of the "canonical" books, an obvious testament to the translators' and users' belief in their canonicity. How then, were these books excluded from the Jewish canon? Perhaps on of the most important event took place in the Jewish “synod” [d] held in the Palestinian town of Jamnia, about 50 kilometers west of Jerusalem, in AD95.

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The Masoretic Text

In AD70 Jerusalem, after the Jewish revolt, was destroyed by the Romans. The religion of the Jews lost their most important icon, the Temple itself. It was destroyed, never to be rebuilt. To save their religion, the Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai from the Hillel school in the Pharisaic party, obtained permission from the Romans to rebuild the Sanhedrin on a spiritual basis in Jamnia. There a “synod” or meeting in AD95 was held in which the extent of the Hebrew canon was debated. The books of the apocrypha and the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs had their canonicity debated. Some of the books in the apocrypha were rejected because they were extent only in Greek. However, other books, such as I Maccabees existed in Hebrew as well as Greek. The reason for its rejection was more on pragmatic than religious grounds. I Maccabees described the revolt led by the Maccabean family against the Syrian king, Antiochus Ephiphanes (d.163BC) who attacked Jerusalem and pillaged the Temple in 167BC. The rabbis in Jamnia were in no mood to promote a book about revolt so soon after their own failed revolt against the Romans. Thus, I Maccabees was excluded from the canon. The Song of Solomon, an overtly sexual book, was accepted solely on the tradition that it was written by King Solomon. Jewish and Christians theologians have, ever since then been forced to interpret the book allegorically to give the book some semblance of religiousness. The debate played a major role in deciding the twenty four books [e] of the Hebrew Canon which coincided with the thirty nine books of the Christian Old Testament. [7]

Around the end of the first century AD, there were doubtless many slightly different renditions of the Hebrew scriptures around. It was also around this time that a certain textual tradition was selected as the norm or authoritative text for all time. Thus this standard text was not based on any scientific or critical study on the many extant manuscripts of the scriptures. [8] This text eventually became known as the Masoretic (Hebrew: masorah = “tradition”) text. Although the earliest extent manuscript of the Masoretic text today is very late (AD916), all the evidence we have, based on fragments that predates this oldest manuscript, point to the fact that the text remain practically unaltered since the time of the synod at Jamnia. [9] Standard translations of the English Bible are still based on the Masoretic text. [10] [f]

Apart from the differences in books considered canonical, the Masoretic text differs from the Septuagint in the actual textual content as well.

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The Dead Sea Scrolls

In 1947 scrolls were discovered that came from caves associated with the ruined buildings belonging to a Jewish religious community that was destroyed by the Romans during the first century AD. The location of the find, Qumran, close to the Dead Sea, gave the findings its name: the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls include fragments representing every book in the Old Testament except the book of Esther. The scrolls were the first pre-Masoretic text in Hebrew ever discovered. Some readings in the scrolls were more closely related to the Septuagint version, others were closer to the Masoretic, while still others differ from both the Septuagint and the Masoretic.

The obvious conclusion from this is that the text in today's Bible is just one of many variations that existed in the past. [11] What does the Christian mean, when he says he is reading the unalterable word of God?

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Notes

a.This does not mean that, in its present form, these books are the oldest in the Bible. In fact most scholars are of the opinion that Amos is the oldest complete work in the Old Testament. It was probably written around 760BC.
b.The books grouped under the Nebhim are Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekial and the twelve minor prophets.
c.The books grouped under the Kethubhim are Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles.
d.Nowadays scholars of the development of the canon usually puts the term “synod” in inverted commas. There has been debate among scholars as to whether the meeting at Jamnia-that it did take place was not doubted-actually amounted to an official decision to close the Hebrew Canon. In fact Lee M. McDonald had argued that debates were going on regarding the extant of the Canon well into the fifth century CE. [6] However it is quite obvious that the meeting at Jamnia played a reasonably important role in the final form of the Hebrew canon.
e.Unlike the Christian Old Testament the Jewish Bible counts the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles as single books. The books of twelve minor prophets from Hosea to Malachi were also counted as one book in the Hebrew canon. Actually the twenty four books add up to the thirty nine books in the Old Testament.
f.Note that the arrangement of the books of the Christian Old Testament is based on the Septuagint but the actual text (words used for translation) is based on the Masoretic text..

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References

1.Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism: p215
2.Allegro, The Dead Sea Scrolls: p62
Bruce, The Books and the Parchments: p146
Parmalee, Guidebook to the Bible: p81-82
3.Martin, New Testament Foundations: Volume 1: p74
4.Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p468
5.Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p74
6.McDonald, The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon: p49-50
7.Allegro, The Dead Sea Scrolls: p59-60
Anderson, A Critical Introduction to the Old Testament:p192
Bruce, The Books and the Parchments: p97
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p327
8.Allegro, The Dead Sea Scrolls: p59-60
9.ibid: p59-60
Bruce, The Books and the Parchments: p115
Howell-Smith, In Search of the Real Bible: p9
10.Allegro, The Dead Sea Scrolls: p23
11.ibid: chapter 4
Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism: p105-106

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