The Hebrew Bible is a collection of 24 ancient Hebrew books considered holy by adherents to the Jewish faith. But how did this collection come about? Who decided which books would be included, and which wouldn’t be, and when did this happen?
This process, known as canonization, did not take place at once, or at some great council meeting. It was a protracted process that took place in stages. These stages correspond to the three major sections of the Bible, and during them, the holiness of at least some of the texts was fiercely disputed.
The first stage saw the creation of the collection called The Torah (“the teaching”), with its five books. Only later was the second section, the Prophets with its eight books, created. And only then was the third section, the Writings, created too, resulting in the Hebrew Bible we know today, with its 24 books.
The Torah: Taking shape over centuries
The Torah consists of five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
Genesis describes the creation of the world and the ensuing history until the sons of Jacob go down to Egypt (in more than one version).
The second section, Exodus, describes the story of the Israelite bondage in Egypt and the story of their liberation under the leadership of Moses. The remaining three books, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, describe the Israelites’ wandering in the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land including the all-important revelation at Mount Sinai, along with various lists of religious laws.
For centuries untold, people believed that the five books of the Pentateuch had been written by Moses: the Talmud even says so. Leaving aside the historicity of Moses himself, clearly the Torah wasn’t written by a single person, given the differences in style and language, and contradictions in the texts, among other things. The Torah is evidently a composite of earlier books long lost in time.
Scholars disagree on how exactly these books came to be, but all agree that it was a complicated process that took many years and involved multiple writers and editors. An important stage in the production of this collection must have taken place during the reign of King Josiah of Judah in the second half of the seventh century B.C.E.
In II Kings 22 we find the account of a chance discovery of “a book of law” in the Temple itself, during renovations. From this account, which was likely written during the reign of Josiah itself, evidently the Torah as we know it didn’t exist yet.
The contents of the book that was allegedly “found” (but was most likely written by Josiah’s own scribes) was clearly unknown at the time, as Josiah claimed to be compelled by its contents to reform religion in his kingdom. As he put it, speaking to his officials: “… great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not hearkened unto the words of this book”.
Based on the description of this reform, which is recounted in the next chapter, scholars generally agree that the book ostensibly found in the Temple was an early version of the laws appearing in the middle section of Deuteronomy, since these not only command that the actions Josiah took be taken, but actually do this in a language very similar to that used by Josiah’s scribes to describe his reform.
The next time the Bible says anything about a “book of the Torah” is in Nehemiah 8, where people led by Ezra the Scribe returning from the Babylonian Exile, probably in 398 B.C.E., hold a ceremony in which “the book of the law of Moses” is read - “the book,” not “a book” this time:
“…and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded to Israel.”
Like when that book was discovered in the days of Josiah, the contents of the book read by Ezra are a surprise this time around as well. We are told that the contents of the book needed to be explained to the people, and that they learned from it that they need to build tabernacles for the upcoming holiday of Sukkot. Apparently, the Torah read by Ezra was unknown to the people of Jerusalem, and must have been brought by him from Babylonia.
Though this likely means the Torah was edited during the Babylonian Exile, it does not exclude the possibility that the texts incorporated into it predated the Exile, as many scholars think.
The Torah must have gone through some additional editing and some sections (such as those describing Yom Kippur) were definitely added to it during the subsequent years.
But the process must have come to a close quite soon after Ezra came to Jerusalem. We know this because the period following Ezra’s arrival in Jerusalem saw a schism between the Judeans and the Samaritans, and since both communities have the same Torah to this very day, it must have taken its current form before the two went their separate ways.
Based on this, we can say with some certainty that the process of canonization of the Torah started in the second half of the seventh century B.C.E. and ended sometime during the fourth century B.C.E.
Did the Prophets see Alexander coming
The Prophets consists of two sections, each with four books. The first section is the Former Prophets, which contains the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings.
The “Former Prophets” section describes the history of Judah and Israel, starting with the time of the conquest of the land by the Israelites, through the rise of the monarchy of the Kingdom of Israel, its separation into two kingdoms – Judah and Israel, to the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians in 720 B.C.E.; then the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah at the hand of the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.
Most of this Former Prophets section was probably written by scribes in the reign of King Josiah in the end of the seventh century B.C.E, who probably integrated material from earlier books that are now lost. These sections were definitely edited and supplemented by later scribes during the Babylonian Exile in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. and possibly after it as well.
The second section, “the Latter Prophets,” consists of four books as well: the three major prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, which were written during the First Temple period (eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E.); the period of the fall of the Kingdom of Judah (around 586 B.C.E.), and the beginning of the Babylonian Exile respectively (roughly the same time). All underwent emendations and were added to during and probably after the Exile.
The age of Prophets ends
At some point someone collected these various books into a fixed collection, which we call “the Prophets,” but when?
Unlike the Torah, which Jews and Samaritans have in common, the Prophets is not accepted by the Samaritans as a holy text. So it is likely that the collection was canonized only after the schism between the groups, which took place in the fourth century B.C.E. On the other hand, we can reasonably surmise that the canonization of the Prophets didn’t take place much later than that, since it seems pretty clear that the collection was canonized before Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian Empire in 330 B.C.E., leading to the subsequent ascendancy of Hellenism.
This can be assumed based on the fact that no prophet is said to prophesy these important events. Had the collection still been fluid, a prophesy foretelling them would have probably found its way into the collection. Another clue is the utter lack of Greek words in the collection, and one or two would have probably made their way in were the Prophets still being supplemented.
Taking this into account then, it seems that sometime in the middle of the fourth century B.C.E, the belief that the age of prophecy had ended became accepted. This belief is even evident in the book of one of the last prophets, Zechariah: “On that day every prophet will be ashamed of their prophetic vision. They will not put on a prophet’s garment of hair in order to deceive” (13:4).
Thus, following the example of the canonized Torah, a collection of books believed to have been produced in the age of prophecy was collected, almost certainly in the Jerusalem Temple. This closed official list of prophetic books was likely created as a safeguard against the growing number of allegedly prophetic books that were produced and circulated in Judah at the time.
And now a word from Josephus
The final section of the Bible, the Writings, is a miscellany of 13 very different books: three poetic books, the Psalms, Proverbs, and Job; the five scrolls Song of Songs, Book of Ruth, the Book of Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Book of Esther; and Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles.
Scholars largely agree that these books were written during the Second Temple period (538 B.C.E.- 70 C.E.), though they include to a varying degree texts that had surely been written at an earlier time, before and during the Exile. It is pretty clear that this section started to take form after the Prophets became a closed canon. Otherwise it’s hard to explain why Daniel and Chronicles weren’t included in the Prophets.
The earliest evidence we have of a third section of the Bible beginning to take form is in the non-canonical Book of Ben Sira, which was written in the early second century B.C.E. In his book Ben Sira makes reference to three sections of the Bible corresponding to our Torah, Prophets, and Writings:
“On the other hand he who devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High (Torah) will seek out the wisdom of all the ancients (Writings), and will be concerned with prophecies (Prophets)” (39:1).
Ben Sira’s grandson translated the work into Greek in about 132 B.C.E. and wrote a short prologue to the work, in which he too makes reference to this tripartite division of the Bible: “the Law and the prophets and the other books of our fathers.”
These references make it clear that a process of collecting these latter books into the collection we call the Writings had begun, though it had no fixed name at the time. We also learn that the process continued for a long time after that, and had not yet taken the final form we know today. This is clear from the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus in his book “Against Apion,” probably written in the very beginning of the second century C.E. In this book Josephus clearly states that the Bible contains “but twenty two books.”
The first mention that the Bible has 24 books is in the apocalyptic extracanonical book known as 2 Esdras, which was written sometime between the end of the first century C.E. to the beginning of the third century C.E.:
“…the Most High spoke to me, saying, ‘Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people’” (14:45-6).
Clearly, two books not seen as canonical by Josephus must have been added to the Bible sometime during the second and early third centuries C.E.
These final two books to make the cut were almost certainly Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. We know this because the Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic teaching redacted by Rabbi Judah the Prince in the beginning of the third century C.E., records a debate taking place in the Galilee after the Bar Kochba Revolt during the end of the second century or the beginning of the third.
According to the Mishnah (Yadayim 3:5), the leading rabbinic authorities of the day participated in the dispute, which rather strangely is not framed as a discussion on whether the two books are holy scripture but rather on the question of whether they “defile the hands.” But saying that a book defiles the hands is tantamount to saying it is holy scripture, as is made clear by Judah the Prince’s decision to preface the discussion with the statement “All holy scriptures defile the hands.”
Yes. The rabbis for whatever reason decreed that touching holy scripture makes one’s hands ritually impure. Why they did so is unknown.
The Mishnah says that Rabbi Judah (not to be confused with Judah the Prince) advocated that the Song of Songs defiles the hands, but Ecclesiastes was in dispute. Rabbi Yose, on the other hand, said that Ecclesiastes definitely did not defile the hands but the status of Song of Songs was in dispute.
Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai contributed to the dispute, claiming that he received an oral tradition that the rabbinic council in Yavne, about a century before, decided that both books defile the hands. Rabbi Yohanan ben Joshua seconded this opinion.
To these opinions, Rabbi Judah the Prince added the authoritative ruling of Rabbi Akiva, who had already been killed by the Romans by this time, putting the full weight of his authority behind the canonicity Song of Songs: “The whole world is not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the writings are holy but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies. If they had a dispute, they had a dispute only about Ecclesiastes.”
The Mishnah then finishes the discussion saying “so they disputed and so they reached a decision.” The decision of course was “the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes defile the hands.”
It seems then that at this point the canon was set as it is today, with 24 books. This does not mean that further discussions did not take place after this though, just that the status quo was kept to this day. For example, the Talmud (Megillah 7a) provides a detailed discussion on the question of whether or not the Book of Esther was scripture, eventually coming to the conclusion that it is, based on the flimsy evidence that the author of the book makes statements that he could not possibly have known unless instructed by God (apparently the possibility that the writer just made these statements up did not cross the rabbis’ minds).
The status of Ben Sira’s book seems to have been in dispute as well in Talmudic times. It is quoted as if it was scripture quite a bit in the Talmud, but it seems that eventually the opinion expressed in the Tosefta “Ben Sira and all subsequently written books do not defile the hands” (Yadayim 2:5) prevailed, and it remained out of the canon.Books deemed not to be scripture were suppressed when, in the second century C.E., Rabbi Akiva forbade their reading in no uncertain terms, claiming a Jew who read them was barred from entering “the World to Come” (Sanhedrin 10:1). Fearing the loss of this prize, Jews stopped reading them, didn’t make new copies of them, and eventually they were lost.
Well, almost lost. Many of these books were translated into Greek, and these translations were read and copied by Christians, who didn’t care what Rabbi Akiva had decreed. These books made their way into the many different Christian canons and were thus saved from oblivion. These include the the several books of Maccabees, the Book of Jubilees, and many other important books of the Second Temple period.
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