Development of the Hebrew Bible canon

This article is about the selection of the books which make up the Tanakh. For the fixing of the text itself, see Masoretic Text.
This article is about the Jewish canon. For the Christian canon, see Development of the Old Testament canon.

Rabbinic Judaism recognizes the 24 books of the Masoretic Text, commonly called the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible, as authoritative.[1] Modern scholarship suggests that the most recently written are the books of Jonah, Lamentations, and Daniel, all of which may have been composed as late as the second century BCE.

The Book of Deuteronomy includes a prohibition against adding or subtracting,[2][3] which might apply to the book itself (i.e. a "closed book", a prohibition against future scribal editing) or to the instruction received by Moses on Mt. Sinai.[4]

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 Jerusalem and the Second Temple (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).

There is no scholarly consensus as to when the Hebrew Bible canon was fixed: some scholars argue that it was fixed by the Hasmonean dynasty (140–40 BCE),[5] while others argue it was not fixed until the second century CE or even later.[6] The Catholic Pontifical Biblical Commission says that "the more restricted Hebrew canon is later than the formation of the New Testament".[7]


Evidence of a collection of sacred scripture similar to portions of the Hebrew Bible comes from the book of Sirach (dating from 180 BCE and not included in the Jewish canon), which includes a list of names of Old Testament biblical figures (44–49) in the same order as is found in the Torah 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[8] 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.

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,[9] 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 Law (Torah) and the Prophets (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").[10]


Main article: Septuagint

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.[11]

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.[12] Strong evidence exists that the Septuagint was the canon in place in first century Palestine. "Authors Archer and Chirichigno list 340 places where the New Testament cites the Septuagint but only 33 places where it cites from the Masoretic Text rather than the Septuagint."[13]

Dead Sea Scrolls

The theory that there was a closed Hebrew canon of Second Temple Judaism was further challenged by the textual variants found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Michael Barber writes, "Up until recently it was assumed that “apocryphal” additions found in the books of the LXX represented later augmentations in the Greek to the Hebrew texts. In connection with this, the Masoretic text (MT) established by the rabbis in the medieval period has been accepted as the faithful witness to the Hebrew Bible of the 1st century. Yet, this presupposition is now being challenged in light of the Dead Sea Scrolls."[11]

Evidence that supports these challenges include the fact that "copies of some Biblical books found at Qumran reveal sharp divergences from the MT." As an example of such evidence, Barber asserts that "scholars were amazed to find that the Hebrew copies of 1 and 2 Samuel found in Cave 4 agree with the LXX against the MT. One of these fragments is dated into the third century BCE and is believed to be the very oldest copy of a biblical text found to date. Clearly the Masoretic version of 1–2 Samuel is significantly inferior here to the LXX exemplar."[11]

The Dead Sea scrolls refer to the Torah and Nevi'im and suggest that these portions of the Bible had been canonized before 68 CE. A scroll that contains all or parts of 41 biblical psalms, although in a different order than in the current Book of Psalms and which includes eight texts not found in the Book of Psalms, suggests that the Book of Psalms had not yet been canonized. See also Psalms 152–155.


In the 1st century CE, Philo Judaeus of Alexandria discussed sacred books, but made no mention of a three part division of the Bible; though 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]


Further information: Josephus

According to Michael Barber, the earliest and most explicit testimony of a Hebrew canonical list comes from Josephus (37CE – c. 100CE).[11] 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. Other scholars suggest that at the time Josephus wrote, such books as Esther and Ecclesiastes were not yet considered canonical.

According to Gerald A. Larue,[19] 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.

Barber agrees that although "scholars have reconstructed Josephus’ list differently, it seems clear that we have in his testimony a list of books very close to the Hebrew canon as it stands today." However, he avers that Josephus' canon is "not identical to that of the modern Hebrew Bible". He points out that it is debatable whether or not Josephus' canon had a tripartite structure. And thus, Barber warns that "one should be careful not to overstate the importance of Josephus." In support of this caveat, he points out that "Josephus was clearly a member of the Pharisaic party and, although he might not have liked to think so, his was not the universally accepted Jewish Bible—other Jewish communities included more than twenty-two books."[11]

2 Esdras

The first reference to a 24-book Jewish canon is found in 2 Esdras, which was probably written in 90–96 CE (after the destruction of the Second Temple) or the second half of the third century.[20]

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.


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 (Sanhedrin 10:1). 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.[21]

They also debated the status of Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs concluding like the tradition of Rabbi Simeon ben Azzai that they are Holy (Yadayim 3:5). Akiva stoutly defended, however, the canonicity of the Song of Songs, and Esther.[22] But Heinrich Graetz's statements[23] respecting Akiva's attitude toward the canonicity of the Song of Songs are misconceptions, as I.H. Weiss has to some extent shown.[24] To the same motive underlying his antagonism to the Apocrypha, namely, the desire to disarm Christians —especially Jewish Christians— who drew their "proofs" from the Apocrypha, must also be attributed his wish to emancipate the Jews of the Dispersion from the domination of the Septuagint, the errors and inaccuracies in which frequently distorted the true meaning of Scripture, and were even used as arguments against the Jews by the Christians.

Council of Jamnia

Main article: Council of Jamnia

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. 7090). This became the prevailing scholarly consensus for much of the 20th century.

W. M. Christie was the first to dispute this popular theory in the July 1925 edition of The Journal of Theological Studies in an article entitled "The Jamnia Period in Jewish History".[25] Jack P. Lewis wrote a critique of the popular consensus in the April 1964 edition of the Journal of Bible and Religion entitled "What Do We Mean by Jabneh?"[26] Raymond E. Brown largely supported Lewis in his review published in the Jerome Biblical Commentary (also appears in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary of 1990), as did Lewis' discussion of the topic in 1992's Anchor Bible Dictionary.[27] 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.[28]

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. Nevertheless, the outcomes attributed to the Council of Jamnia did occur whether gradually or as the ruling of a definitive, authoritative council. According to Gerald Larue,[19] the criteria used in the selection of sacred books to be included in the Jewish canon have not been set forth in any "clear-cut delineation" but appear to have included the following:

  1. The writing had to be composed in Hebrew. The only exceptions, which were written in Aramaic, were Daniel 2–7, writings attributed to Ezra (Ezra 4:8–6:18; 7:12–26), who was recognized as the founding father of post-Exilic Judaism, and Jer. 10:11. Hebrew was the language of Sacred Scripture, Aramaic the language of common speech.
  2. The writing had to be sanctioned by usage in the Jewish community. The use of Esther at Purim made it possible for it to be included in the canon. Judith, without such support, was not acceptable.
  3. The writings had to contain one of the great religious themes of Judaism, such as election, or the covenant. By reclassifying the Song of Songs as an allegory, it was possible to see in this book an expression of covenantal love.
  4. The writing had to be composed before the time of Ezra, for it was popularly believed that inspiration had ceased then. Jonah was accepted because it used the name of an early prophet and dealt with events before the destruction of Nineveh, which occurred in 612 BCE. The Book of Daniel had its setting in the Exile and therefore was accepted as an Exilic document.


  1. For the number of books see: Darshan, G. “The Twenty-Four Books of the Hebrew Bible and Alexandrian Scribal Methods,”, in: M.R. Niehoff (ed.), Homer and the Bible in the Eyes of Ancient Interpreters: Between Literary and Religious Concerns (JSRC 16), Leiden: Brill 2012, pp. 221–244
  2. Deut 4:2
  3. Deut 12:32
  4. McDonald & Sanders, ed., The Canon Debate, page 60, chapter 4: The Formation of the Hebrew Canon: Isaiah as a Test Case by Joseph Blenkinsopp.
  5. 1 2 Philip R. Davies in The Canon Debate, page 50: "With many other scholars, I conclude that the fixing of a canonical list was almost certainly the achievement of the Hasmonean dynasty."
  6. 1 2 McDonald & Sanders, The Canon Debate, 2002, page 5, cited are Neusner's Judaism and Christianity in the Age of Constantine, pages 128–145, and Midrash in Context: Exegesis in Formative Judaism, pages 1–22.
  7. The Pontifical Biblical Commission (2002), "3. Formation of the Christian Canon", The Jewis People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, Libreria Editrice Vaticana
  8. "Jewish Encyclopedia: Bible Canon". 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.
  9. Thomas J. Finley, BSac 165:658 (April–June 2008) p. 206
  10. "Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach".
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 Barber, Michael (2006-03-04). "Loose Canons: The Development of the Old Testament (Part 1)".
  12. The Canon Debate, McDonald & Sanders editors, 2002, chapter 6: Questions of Canon through the Dead Sea Scrolls by James C. VanderKam, page 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.5% and nonaligned c.25%.
  13. Catholic Answers, In which passages does Jesus quote the Septuagint, and where does the New Testament allude to the Septuagint?, citing G. Archer and G. C. Chirichigno, Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament: A Complete Survey, 25-32.
  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. The Canon Debate, McDonald & Sanders editors, page 132; page 140 states 97% (2260 instances) of quotations from the Torah.
  17. The Canon Debate, McDonald & Sanders editors, chapter by Sundberg, page 72, adds further detail: "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. 1 2 Larue, Gerald A. (1968). Old Testament Life and Literature. Allyn and Bacon. pp. Ch. 31.
  20. Richard Gottheil; Enno Littmann; Kaufmann Kohler, Esdras, Books of, Jewish Encyclopedia
  21. W. Bacher, Ag. Tan. i. 277; H. Grätz, Gnosticismus, p. 120.
  22. Yadayim iii.5, Megillah 7a.
  23. Shir ha-Shirim, p. 115, and Kohelet, p. 169.
  24. Dor Dor we-Dorshaw, ii. 97.
  25. W. M. Christie, The Jamnia Period in Jewish History (PDF), Biblical
  26. Jack P. Lewis (April 1964), "What Do We Mean by Jabneh?", Journal of Bible and Religion, 32, No. 2, Oxford University Press, pp. 125–132, JSTOR 1460205
  27. Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. III, pp. 634–7 (New York 1992).
  28. McDonald & Sanders, editors, The Canon Debate, 2002, chapter 9: Jamnia Revisited by Jack P. Lewis.
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