What Did The Ancient Jews Believe About The Sacred Writings?

In trying to explain the establishment of the inspired Old Testament, some critics have questioned whether the ancient Jews believed in an inspired set of writings. As one online poster claimed:

Yet the developmental history and contents of the Bible testifies to everything but ‘divine inspiration’. The Jews, from whom the Christians wholly borrowed their canon, were themselves completely oblivious to any set of volumes for a sacred law worthy of designating as the complete Jewish ancient canon. As the Catholic Encyclopedia confirms:

That a written sacred Torah was previously unknown among the Israelites, is demonstrated by the negative evidence of the earlier prophets, by the absence of any such factor from the religious reform undertaken by Ezechias (Hezekiah), while it was the mainspring of that carried out by Josias, and lastly by the plain surprise and consternation of the latter ruler at the finding of such a work.

Quotes such as this show a lack of accurate representation of several things. First, the inspiration of the Bible was not established as a part of a “developmental history” but rather an objective test for inspiration. The books themselves developed over time, but the measure for inspiration did not. Second, the quote from the catholic encyclopedia is not exactly an accurate representation of what the article was saying. The full article can be found here. The quote given above is a part of a section contrasting a critical view with a traditionalist view of Old Testament canonicity, which is then followed by the explanation of the catholic view. So the quote given above is not the complete position presented in the catholic encyclopedia, but is only part of a critical viewpoint given as background. The article also presents a traditional viewpoint as background, saying that traditionalist position is that there was an Old Testament canon, supported by passages such as Deut. 31. Later in the article the summary of the author is given, with a lengthy and nuanced explanation of the catholic position. In one part, the article states “But though the formal idea of canonicity was wanting among the Jews the fact existed.”

Further, that there was no collection of inspired Jewish books would have apparently been news to the ancient Jews. Over in the Jewish Encyclopedia, which would seem to be a closer representation of the Jewish position, we are told that”the ancients regarded the whole mass of the national religious writings as equally holy.” The Jewish explanation goes on to say that “The canonical books, therefore, needed no special designation, since originally all were holy. A new term had to be coined for the new idea of non-holy books.” Later it says that “Jewish tradition adopts the view that every word of Holy Writ was inspired by the Divine Spirit.” You can find the rest of the Jewish explanation for canonicity here.

Still further, the Jewish Christians who wrote the New Testament referred to “the scriptures” in a tone that suggests that an established collection of Old Testament inspired writings was accepted fact. Peter in Acts 1:16 says “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David . . .” Romans 1:2 says “. . . which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures . . .” Many more passages can be offered, but these suffice to show that the Jews held the collection of Old Testament writings as inspired by God, holy, and collected into a known group.

Therefore the idea of collecting inspired books into an accepted group of writings goes way back before modern times, at least as far back as Deut. 31, where the law that God dictated to Moses was collected and put into the ark of the covenant. Thus the Christian view of the Old Testament follows that of the ancient Jews, namely that the writings are inspired by God.


About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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One Response to What Did The Ancient Jews Believe About The Sacred Writings?

  1. In doing my own research on the topic, early Christians and Jews did believe the septugaint was inspired by god. Now there was no definitive definitions of what inspired meant. But there are indications among those that inspired mostly meant dictated by god, {not necessarily inerrant or infallible.}

    the idea of inerrant or infallible did really come along until largely in the 4th century with likes of Augustine and Jerome.

    I am currently working on a post on early interpretation of inspiration and inerrancy, i probably won’t post it for another week or two.

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