Development of the Hebrew Bible canon

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There is no scholarly consensus as to when the canon of the Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh) was fixed. Rabbinic Judaism recognizes the twenty-four books of the Masoretic Text (five books of the Torah, eight books of the Nevi'im, and eleven books of the Ketuvim) as the authoritative version of the Tanakh.[1] Of these books, the Book of Daniel has the most recent final date of composition (chapters 10-12 were written sometime between 168 and 164 BCE).[2][3][4] The canon was therefore fixed at some time after this date. Some scholars argue that it was fixed during the Hasmonean dynasty (140–40 BCE),[5] while others argue it was not fixed until the second century CE or even later.[6]

The book of 2 Maccabees, itself not a part of the Jewish canon, describes Nehemiah (around 400 BCE) as having "founded a library and collected books about the kings and prophets, and the writings of David, and letters of kings about votive offerings" (2:13–15). The Book of Nehemiah suggests that the priest-scribe Ezra brought the Torah back from Babylon to the Second Temple of Jerusalem (8–9) around the same time period. Both 1 and 2 Maccabees suggest that Judas Maccabeus (around 167 BCE) also collected sacred books (3:42–50, 2:13–15, 15:6–9).


The Book of Sirach provides evidence of a collection of sacred scriptures similar to portions of the Hebrew Bible. The book, which is dated to between 196 and 175 BCE[7][8] (and is not included in the Jewish canon), includes a list of names of biblical figures (44–50) in the same order as is found in the Torah (Law) and the Nevi'im (Prophets), and which includes the names of some men mentioned in the Ketuvim (Writings). Based on this list of names, some scholars have conjectured that the author, Yeshua ben Sira, had access to, and considered authoritative, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets.[9]

His list excludes names from Ruth, Song of Songs, Esther and Daniel, suggesting that people mentioned in these works did not fit the criteria of his current listing of great men,[10] or that he did not have access to these books, or did not consider them authoritative. In the prologue to the Greek translation of Ben Sira's work, his grandson, dated at 132 BCE, mentions both the Torah and the Nevi'im, as well as a third group of books which is not yet named as Ketuvim (the prologue simply identifies "the rest of the books").[11]


The Septuagint (LXX) is a Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, translated in stages between the 3rd to 2nd century BCE in Alexandria, Egypt.

According to Michael Barber, in the Septuagint the Torah and Nevi'im are established as canonical, but the Ketuvim appear not to have been definitively canonized yet. The translation (and editing) work might have been done by seventy (or seventy-two) elders who translated the Hebrew Bible into Koine Greek but the historical evidence for this story is rather sketchy. Beyond that, according to him, it is virtually impossible to determine when each of the other various books was incorporated into the Septuagint.[12][unreliable source?]

Philo and Josephus (both associated with first-century Hellenistic Judaism) ascribed divine inspiration to its translators, and the primary ancient account of the process is the circa 2nd-century BCE Letter of Aristeas. Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls attest to Hebrew texts other than those on which the Masoretic Text was based; in some cases, these newly found texts accord with the Septuagint version.[13]


In the 1st century CE, Philo Judaeus of Alexandria discussed sacred books, but made no mention of a three-part division of the Bible;[citation needed] although his De vita contemplativa[14] (sometimes suggested in the 19th century to be of later, Christian, authorship)[15] does state at III(25) that "studying… the laws and the sacred oracles of God enunciated by the holy prophets, and hymns, and psalms, and all kinds of other things by reason of which knowledge and piety are increased and brought to perfection." Philo quotes almost exclusively from the Torah, but occasionally from Ben Sira and Wisdom of Solomon.[16][17]


According to Michael Barber, the earliest and most explicit testimony of a Hebrew canonical list comes from Josephus (37 CE – c. 100 CE).[12][citation needed] Josephus refers to sacred scriptures divided into three parts, the five books of the Torah, thirteen books of the Nevi'im, and four other books of hymns and wisdom:

For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another [as the Greeks have], but only twenty-two books, which contain all the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death. ... the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life.[18]

Since there are 24 books in the current Jewish canon instead of the 22 mentioned by Josephus, some scholars have suggested that he considered Ruth part of Judges, and Lamentations part of Jeremiah.[19] Other scholars suggest that at the time Josephus wrote, such books as Song of Songs or Ecclesiastes were not yet considered canonical.[20]

According to Gerald A. Larue, Josephus' listing represents what came to be the Jewish canon, although scholars were still wrestling with problems of the authority of certain writings at the time that he was writing. Significantly, Josephus characterizes the 22 books as canonical because they were divinely inspired; he mentions other historical books that were not divinely inspired and that he therefore did not believe belonged in the canon.[21]

2 Esdras[edit]

The first allusion to a 24-book Jewish collection of books is found in 2 Esdras, which was probably written sometime between 90[22] and 100 CE,[23] (after the destruction of the Second Temple). At the end of the narrative, Ezra receives the Holy Spirit and dictates 94 books. Then God tells him:

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.

There are no clues in the text as to which of these 94 books were considered the publicly revealed 24, but it is probable that the publicly revealed books are the same or close to the 24 books of the Rabbinic Scriptures.[24]


The Pharisees also debated the status of canonical books. In the 2nd century CE, Rabbi Akiva declared that those who read non-canonical books would not share in the afterlife.[25] But, according to Bacher and Grätz, Akiva was not opposed to a private reading of the Apocrypha, as is evident from the fact that he himself makes frequent use of Sirach.[26]

They also debated the status of Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs concluding like the tradition of Rabbi Simeon ben Azzai that they are holy.[27] Akiva stoutly defended, however, the canonicity of the Song of Songs, and Esther.[28] But Heinrich Graetz's statements[29] respecting Akiva's attitude toward the canonicity of the Song of Songs are misconceptions, as I.H. Weiss has to some extent shown.[30] He was antagonistic toward the Septuagint text family and the apocryphal books contained therein, since Christians drew so heavily from them.

Council of Jamnia[edit]

The Mishnah, compiled at the end of the 2nd century CE, describes a debate over the status of some books of Ketuvim, and in particular over whether or not they render the hands ritually impure. Yadaim 3:5 calls attention to a debate over Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. The Megillat Ta'anit, in a discussion of days when fasting is prohibited but that are not noted in the Bible, mentions the holiday of Purim. Based on these, and a few similar references, Heinrich Graetz concluded in 1871 that there had been a Council of Jamnia (or Yavne in Hebrew) which had decided Jewish canon sometime in the late 1st century (c. 70–90). This became the prevailing scholarly consensus for much of the 20th century.

W. M. Christie was the first to dispute this popular theory in 1925.[31] Jack P. Lewis wrote a critique of the popular consensus in 1964.[32] Raymond E. Brown largely supported Lewis in his review,[33] as did Lewis' discussion of the topic in 1992's Anchor Bible Dictionary.[34] Sid Z. Leiman made an independent challenge for his University of Pennsylvania thesis published later as a book in 1976, in which he wrote that none of the sources used to support the theory actually mentioned books that had been withdrawn from a canon, and questioned the whole premise that the discussions were about canonicity at all, stating that they were actually dealing with other concerns entirely. Other scholars have since joined in and today the theory is largely discredited.[35]

Some scholars argue that the Jewish canon was fixed earlier by the Hasmonean dynasty.[5] Jacob Neusner published books in 1987 and 1988 that argued that the notion of a biblical canon was not prominent in 2nd-century Rabbinic Judaism or even later and instead that a notion of Torah was expanded to include the Mishnah, Tosefta, Jerusalem Talmud, Babylonian Talmud and midrashim.[6] Thus, there is no scholarly consensus as to when the Jewish canon was set.


  1. ^ Darshan, Guy (2012). "The Twenty-Four Books of the Hebrew Bible and Alexandrian Scribal Methods". In Niehoff, Maren R. (ed.). Homer and the Bible in the Eyes of Ancient Interpreters: Between Literary and Religious Concerns (JSRC 16). Leiden, Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill. pp. 221–244. ISBN 978-9004221345.
  2. ^ Collins, John J. (1984). Daniel: With an Introduction to Apocalyptic Literature. The Forms of the Old Testament Literature. Vol. XX. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 36. ISBN 978-0802800206.
  3. ^ Grabbe, Lester L. (2001). "A Dan(iel) For All Seasons: For Whom Was Daniel Important?". In Collins, John J.; Flint, Peter W. (eds.). The Book of Daniel: Composition and Reception. Supplements to Vetus Testamentum. Vol. 1. Leiden, Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill. p. 229. ISBN 90-04-11675-3.
  4. ^ Grabbe, Lester L. (1991). "Maccabean Chronology: 167-164 or 168-165 BCE?". Journal of Biblical Literature. 110 (1): 59–74. doi:10.2307/3267150. JSTOR 3267150.
  5. ^ a b Philip R. Davies in McDonald & Sanders 2002, p. 50: "With many other scholars, I conclude that the fixing of a canonical list was almost certainly the achievement of the Hasmonean dynasty."
  6. ^ a b McDonald & Sanders 2002, p. 5, cited are Neusner's Judaism and Christianity in the Age of Constantine, pp. 128–45, and Midrash in Context: Exegesis in Formative Judaism, pp. 1–22.
  7. ^ Singer, Isidore, ed. (1905). "Sirach, The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of". The Jewish Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Funk & Wagnalls. pp. 388–397.
  8. ^ Williams, David Salter (1994). "The Date of Ecclesiasticus". Vetus Testamentum. 44 (4): 563–566. doi:10.1163/156853394X00565. JSTOR 1535116.
  9. ^ "Bible Canon". Jewish Encyclopedia. Sirach… knew the Law and Prophets in their present form and sequence; for he glorifies (ch. xliv.–xlix.) the great men of antiquity in the order in which they successively follow in Holy Writ. He not only knew the name [Hebrew omitted] ("The Twelve Prophets"), but cites Malachi iii. 23, and is acquainted with by far the greatest part of the Hagiographa, as is certain from the Hebrew original of his writings recently discovered. He knew the Psalms, which he ascribes to David (Ecclus. [Sirach] xlvii. 8, 9), and the Proverbs: "There were those who found out musical harmonies, and set forth proverbs [A. V., "poetical compositions"] in writing" (xliv. 5). An allusion to Proverbs and probably to the Song of Solomon is contained in his words on King Solomon: "The countries marveled at thee for thy songs, and proverbs, and parables [or "dark sayings"], and interpretations" (xlvii. 17); the last three words being taken from Prov. i. 6, while the Song of Solomon is alluded to in "songs." He would have had no authority to speak of "songs" at all from I Kings v. 12; he must have known them. While he had no knowledge of Ecclesiastes, his didactic style proves that he used Job, as is also indicated by the words [Hebrew omitted] (xliv. 4, and afterward, [Hebrew omitted]). Ecclesiastes, Esther, and Daniel are not included in his canon (see Halévy, "Etude sur la Partie du Texte Hébreux de l'Ecclésiastique," pp. 67 et seq., Paris, 1897); he considers Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah as Holy Scripture (xlix. 12 = Ezra iii. 2; xlix. 13 = Neh. iii. and vi.; compare Neh. vi. 12); he mentions distinctly "the laws and prophets" (xxxix. 1); in the following sentences there are allusions to other writings; and verse 6 of the same chapter leads to the supposition that in his time only wisdom-writings and prayers were being written.
  10. ^ Thomas J. Finley, BSac 165:658 (April–June 2008) p. 206
  11. ^ "Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach". U. Mich.
  12. ^ a b Barber, Michael (2006-03-04). "Loose Canons: The Development of the Old Testament (Part 1)". Archived from the original on 2017-06-21. Retrieved 2015-11-28.
  13. ^ James C. VanderKam, chapter 6: Questions of Canon through the Dead Sea Scrolls, McDonald & Sanders 2002, p. 94, citing private communication with Emanuel Tov on biblical manuscripts: Qumran scribe type c. 25%, proto-Masoretic Text c. 40%, pre-Samaritan texts c. 5%, texts close to the Hebrew model for the Septuagint c.b5% and nonaligned c. 25%.
  14. ^ "On the Contemplative Life or Suppliants", Early Jewish Writings
  15. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia: Bible Canon: "It is true, Lucius ("Die Therapeuten," Strasburg, 1880) doubts the genuineness of this work; but Leopold Cohn, an authority on Philo ("Einleitung und Chronologie der Schriften Philo's," p. 37, Leipsic, 1899; "Philologus," vii., suppl. volume, p. 421), maintains that there is no reason to do so. Consequently, Siegfried's opinion ("Philo," p. 61, Jena, 1875) that Philo's canon was essentially the same as that of to-day, is probably correct (H. E. Ryle, "Philo and Holy Scripture," London, 1895)."
  16. ^ McDonald & Sanders 2002, pp. 132, 140 states 97% (2260 instances) of quotations from the Torah.
  17. ^ Sundberg, Albert C. Jr, McDonald, Lee Martin; Sanders, James A. (eds.), The Canon Debate, p. 72, However, it was not until the time of Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE) that the Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures came to be called by the Latin term septuaginta. [70 rather than 72] In his City of God 18.42, while repeating the story of Aristeas with typical embellishments, Augustine adds the remark, 'It is their translation that it has now become traditional to call the Septuagint' …[Latin omitted]… Augustine thus indicates that this name for the Greek translation of the scriptures was a recent development. But he offers no clue as to which of the possible antecedents led to this development: Exod 24:1–8, Josephus [Antiquities 12.57, 12.86], or an elision. …this name Septuagint appears to have been a fourth- to fifth-century development.
  18. ^ Flavius Josephus, Against Apion – Book 1, 8, Early Jewish Writings
  19. ^ Dunkelgrün, Theodor (2016). "The Testimonium Flavianum Canonicum: Josephus as a Witness to the Biblical Canon, 1566–1823". International Journal of the Classical Tradition. 23 (3): 252–268. doi:10.1007/s12138-016-0408-4. S2CID 163872785.
  20. ^ Ossandón Widow, Juan Carlos (2018). The Origins of the Canon of the Hebrew Bible: An Analysis of Josephus and 4 Ezra. Brill. pp. 42–46.
  21. ^ Larue, Gerald A. (1968). Old Testament Life and Literature. Allyn and Bacon. pp. Ch. 31.
  22. ^ Gottheil, Richard; Littmann, Enno; Kohler, Kaufmann, "Esdras, Books of", Jewish Encyclopedia
  23. ^ Oesterley, William Oscar Emil (1935). "II Esdras (The "Ezra Apocalypse")". An Introduction to the Books of the Apocrypha. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. p. 152.
  24. ^ Ossandón Widow, Juan Carlos (2018). The Origins of the Canon of the Hebrew Bible: An Analysis of Josephus and 4 Ezra. Brill. pp. 176–184.
  25. ^ Sanhedrin 11:1, Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 90a
  26. ^ W. Bacher, Ag. Tan. i. 277; H. Grätz, Gnosticismus, p. 120.
  27. ^ Yadayim 3:5
  28. ^ Yadayim 3:5, Megillah 7a
  29. ^ Shir ha-Shirim, p. 115, and Kohelet, p. 169.
  30. ^ Dor Dor we-Dorshaw, ii. 97.
  31. ^ W. M. Christie (July 1925), "The Jamnia Period in Jewish History" (PDF), The Journal of Theological Studies (104), Biblical Studies UK: 347–364, doi:10.1093/jts/os-XXVI.104.347
  32. ^ Jack P. Lewis (April 1964), "What Do We Mean by Jabneh?", Journal of Bible and Religion, vol. 32, Oxford University Press, pp. 125–32, JSTOR 1460205
  33. ^ Published in the Jerome Biblical Commentary (also appears in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary of 1990
  34. ^ Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. III, pp. 634–7 (New York 1992).
  35. ^ Jack P. Lewis, chapter 9: Jamnia Revisited, McDonald & Sanders 2002.


  • McDonald, Lee Martin; Sanders, James A., eds. (2002). The Canon Debate. Hendrickson Publishers.