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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

The Tanakh

It is extremely difficult to trace how this conception of canon developed, and how it is connected to related notions, such as the eventual stabilization of the biblical text. Until the mid‐20th century, many scholars thought that the canon of the Tanakh was established at Yavneh (Jamnia), a city near the Mediterranean coast, west of Jerusalem, that was a center of Jewish learning after the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE). According to this theory, a group of Rabbis met there in about 90 CE and voted on whether or not certain books are canonical; at the end of this meeting, the official contents of the Bible were supposedly established. It is now acknowledged that this overly neat reconstruction is wrong and was based on a misunderstanding of rabbinic texts. The rabbinic texts that tell of this are no longer understood as granting canonical status, but are now viewed as reflecting certain ambivalences toward particular biblical books, such as Song of Songs, which were already in the canon, and whose canonical presence needed to be justified. Unfortunately, evidence is not available to offer a clear picture of how the canon of the Bible was formed, since much of the material from early Jewish sources (including the Dead Sea Scrolls, rabbinic texts, and the 1st century CE historian Josephus) and Christian sources, is ambiguous or biased.

This much is clear: the canon of the Bible did not develop at a single moment in time but rather in stages. There is general agreement that the Torah was the first section of the Bible to be canonized, that is, to be recognized as central by the community. Exactly when this happened is uncertain. Many scholars had associated this development with Ezra, and they saw the “law of your God” (Ezra 7.14 ), with which Ezra was entrusted in the 5th century BCE, as the Torah. We now recognize, however, that this assertion goes beyond the evidence of the text. Though the Jewish community had recognized the Torah as central to its identity by the Persian period (6th to 4th centuries), a conclusion suggested by citations of Torah material as authoritative in biblical books from this period (for example, Chronicles, Ezra‐Nehemiah), it is unclear exactly how this happened, or whether this development should be associated primarily with a single individual such as Ezra, or should be seen as part of a larger, more complicated process that likely began during the Babylonian exile.

According to rabbinic tradition, the Torah is the first part of a tripartite (three‐part) canon, followed by Neviʿim (Prophets) and Kethuvim (Writings), forming a work that much later was known by the acronym Tanak(h), Torah, Neviʿim, Kethuvim. Neviʿim is composed of Joshua, Judges, Samuel (seen as one book), Kings (seen as one book)—historical works known as “the former prophets”—and “the latter prophets,” consisting of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor proph‐ets (Hosea through Malachi, seen as one book). The order of these eight books has been relatively stable. Kethuvim is composed of the following eleven books, which, by contrast, appear in a wide variety of orders in various book lists and biblical manuscripts: Psalms, Proverbs, Job; the “five scrolls,” whose order has been especially variable, Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and Esther; Daniel, Ezra‐Nehemiah (seen as one book), and Chronicles (seen as one book). The number of canonical books according to traditional Jewish sources is thus twenty‐four (five in the Torah, eight in Neviʿim, eleven in Kethuvim).

The time of origin of the name “Tanakh” is not clear. Rabbinic texts recognize a tripartite canon, where the names we know of, Torah, Nevi’im and Kethuvim, are used for each part of the canon. Their Aramaic equivalent ʿoraita, neviʿei ukhtivei (b. Kid. 49a) could be used as a general term for the Bible as a whole though in classical rabbinic literature this cumbersome locution is not generally employed for the Bible. (Rabbinic literature prefers the terms miqraʿ [that which is read] and kitvei hakodesh [the holy writings].) The acronym Tanakh is first found in Masoretic literature in the form of ʿn”k (from the Aramaic ʿoraita, neviʿei ukhtivei—Masoretic notes are typically in Aramaic). Tanakh, a Hebrew reflection of this Masoretic term, is also found in Masoretic literature. It would thus seem that the term originates in the late first millennium, with the flourishing of the “Masoretic movement.” In contrast to earlier Jewish terms for the Bible which did not explicitly distinguish between different parts of the canon, the term Tanakh may be understood as creating clearer dividing lines between the canonical sections, in some cases even (explicitly) suggesting priority of Torah over Neviʿim and Neviʿim over Kethuvim.

The origin of the tripartite canon has been a topic of recent dispute, with several scholars suggesting that a twoʿpart canon, the Torah and other works, was the original form, and that only later was it divided into three parts. It is more likely, however, that the tripartite canon is primary, and evidence for it appears in such sources as the prologue to the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach, which says that “many great teachings have been given to us through the Law and the Prophets and the others (or, other books) that followed them” and Luke 24.44 , which refers to “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms,” and in parallel expressions in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The tripartite canon likely reflects the gradual nature of the canonization process, with Neviʿim canonized before Kethuvim. This would explain why the Kethuvim contain the book of the prophet Daniel (dating from the 2nd century BCE), and several late historical books, such as Ezra‐Nehemiah and Chronicles, which would seem more appropriately to belong with similar works such as Joshua and Kings. The tripartite canon most likely suggests, therefore, that Torah was canonized in the Persian period, followed by the canonization of Neviʿim in the late Persian or early Greek period, while the Kethuvim were canonized last, around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE).

The tripartite order is not the only one known in antiquity, nor is the number of twenty‐four books the only number mentioned in ancient Jewish sources. Josephus, the Jewish historian of the 1st century CE, refers to twenty‐two biblical books (Against Apion 1.42). It is not clear if he simply had a smaller canon or if, instead, his canon had the texts in a different order, combined in different ways. Some traditions put Ruth after Judges and Lamentations after Jeremiah, treating these smaller books as appendices to the ones they follow, rather than as independent works. Such an arrangement would yield twentyℐtwo books, a number which conveniently corresponds to the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet; some early Christian sources also cite this as the number of books in the Bible. The arrangement of Ruth and Lamentations mentioned above is found in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible begun in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 3rd century BCE (see “Jewish Translations of the Bible,” pp. 2005–20). According to this originally Jewish tradition, mentioned in some early church fathers and reflected in the arrangement of the earliest comprehensive Septuagint manuscripts (4th century CE), the Hebrew Bible is divided into four parts: Torah, Histories, Poetical and Wisdom books, and Prophets. This order continues to be used by Christians in their organization of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) materials (see chart at the end of this essay). Older scholarship spoke of this four‐part, twenty‐two book arrangement as the Alexandrian canon, in contrast to the tripartite, twenty‐four book Palestinian canon, but scholars now recognize that such a clear dichotomy never existed and therefore avoid the use of those terms.

Scholars also now recognize that even when canonization took place, the contents ofthe Bible did not absolutely freeze. Yet, some evidence suggests that by the 2nd century CE the text had largely stabilized—this is reflected in the (few) manuscripts we have from this period, as well as the development of early rabbinic midrash, much of which presupposes a stable text. The destruction of the Second Temple and the Hadrianic persecution of the early 2nd century CE may have also caused a type of conservatism which was responsible for establishing “the” biblical text. These were gradual processes. It is important to remember that other groups, too, had their ideas about the canon; for instance, it is unlikely that the Qumran community, most of whose texts date from a century or so immediately before and immediately after the Common Era, viewed Esther as canonical, since no manuscript of that biblical book has been found among the thousands of fragments discovered. In contrast, many manuscripts of Jubilees, a work similar to Genesis and Exodus, have survived, and given this work's affinities with the practices of the Dead Sea community, it was probably a canonical text for them. Within rabbinic literature, the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach (Sirach or Ecclesiasticus) is sometimes cited with the same formula used for biblical texts and was thus, in some sense, canonical for some Rabbis. Therefore, although we may speak of “the‐ canon forming in the 1st century CE, there was a certain amount of flexibility or variability around the fringes.

This flexibility may also be seen in the extensive divergence with respect to the wording of the biblical text as shown in manuscripts from Qumran, in translations of the Bible in the Septuagint and elsewhere, and to a lesser extent in early rabbinic citations (see “Textual Criticism of the Bible,” pp. 2067–72). These differences are not just small, such as a variant spelling here or there, but are often major, and affect the meaning of the text. There are cases where the text is found in two or more different recensions—identifiably different versions, revisions, or critical texts, not merely two different copies of the same original with minor variants—which may simply vary the order of materials or may exhibit fundamentally different text‐types (for example, short types versus expansive types, as with the text of Jeremiah; see the introduction to Jeremiah). This evidence suggests that, at least in the early stages of the canonization process, it was quite acceptable for a book to circulate in different versions and that different communities may have canonized different versions of the same book.

The most basic question is why particular texts were canonized while others were not. Canonized texts within Jewish tradition were considered part of miqraʿ—“that which is read (aloud)” or kitvei ha‐kodesh—“the holy Scriptures” (to use rabbinic designations). Excluded texts in some cases had been translated in the Septuagint and were therefore canonized in the Christian community; others were lost, or survived as pseudepigrapha (writings falsely attributed to major biblical figures), or were preserved only in fragmentary form in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of these excluded texts date from after the Persian period (later than 332 BCE), and thus were seen as too recent to be eligible for inclusion in the canon.

In various ways, canonical status for a book or group of books has to do with the community's views of their centrality, authority, sacredness, and inspiration. Over time these characteristics have become connected, inseparably so in some traditions; yet they are not identical, and though they overlap, they must still be viewed distinctly. The Song of Songs, for instance, was originally an erotic love poem; by the early rabbinic period, it came to be interpreted allegorically as a love poem between God and Israel. It was also seen as the inspired composition of Solomon himself. Why was it canonized? Was it canonized before it was seen as a holy, allegorical text? In that case, its canonization might reflect a central role that it held in culture or ritual. Or was it canonized only after it was viewed as allegorical and as a composition of Solomon? In that case its significance, whether of authorship

Canons of the Bible

Jewish Canon Protestant Canon Roman Catholic/Orthodox Canon
Genesis Genesis Genesis
Exodus Exodus Exodus
Leviticus Leviticus Leviticus
Numbers Numbers Numbers
Deuteronomy Deuteronomy Deuteronomy
Joshua Judges Judges
Judges Ruth Ruth
Samuel (1 and 2) 1 and 2 Samuel 1 and 2 Samuel
Kings (1 and 2) 1 and 2 Kings 1 and 2 Kings
Isaiah Ezra Ezra
Jeremiah Nehemiah Nehemiah
Ezekiel Esther Tobit
Hosea Job Esther
Joel Psalms
Obadiah Ecclesiastes Job
Jonah Song of Solomon Psalms
Micah PROPHETS Proverbs
Nahum Isaiah Ecclesiastes
Habakkuk Jeremiah Song of Solomon
Haggai Ezekiel Sirach
Zechariah Daniel PROPHETS
Malachi Hosea Isaiah
Kethuvim (WRITINGS) Joel Jeremiah
Proverbs Obadiah Baruch
(Five Scrolls) Micah Daniel
Song of Songs Nahum Hosea
Ruth Habakkuk Joel
Lamentations Zephaniah Amos
Ecclesiastes Haggai Obadiah
Esther Zechariah Jonah
Daniel Malachi Micah
Ezra‐Nehemiah THE APOCRYPHA Nahum
1 and 2 Esdras Habakkuk
Tobit Zephaniah
There is no Apocrypha in the Hebrew Bible Judith Haggai
Esther (with additions) Zechariah
Wisdom of Solomon Malachi
Ecclesiasticus (Sirach)
Baruch Orthodox canons generally include
Letter of Jeremiah (Baruch ch 6 ) 1 and 2 Esdras
Prayer of Azariah and Song of Three Prayer of Manasseh
Daniel and Susanna Psalm 151
Daniel, Bel, & Snake 3 Maccabees
Prayer of Manasseh 1 and 2 Maccabees 4 Maccabees (as an Appendix)
or of ideas, could have played a more important part. There is no way to judge between these two paths to canonization, and the resulting difficulty is characteristic of the problems in dealing with issues of canonization in general.

Despite such major uncertainties in our understanding of the process of canonization, however, several points seem fairly certain. First, it is likely that the final stages of canonization were a reaction to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and its aftermath. This crisis intensified a development which had begun over half a millennium earlier, with the destruction of the First Temple (586 BCE). Through this development Israel gradually became the People of the Book (a term first found in the Quran in reference to Jews and Christians). Second, it is unlikely that canonization represents a purely top‐down process, through which a small group of leaders (Rabbis) determined the canon; instead, the designation of certain works as canonical was more like the official recognition of the works that a large segment of the community had already held to be central, holy, or authoritative. Finally, the act of canonization was remarkably inclusive, creating a body of works richly textured by a wide variety of genres, ideologies, and theologies. This is, fundamentally, a typical ancient Near Eastern process: Instead of creating a small, highly consistent text, as we perhaps would now do, those responsible for the process made efforts to include many of the viewpoints in ancient Israel, incorporating differing and even contradictory traditions into this single, and singular, book.


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