The term “canon” is derived from the Greek word kanōn, which in turn is related to the Hebrew qaneh, meaning a reed, a measuring instrument. It eventually acquired the sense of norm and in that meaning was used by Christians, beginning in the fourth century CE, to designate the list of inspired, authoritative books that made up the church's Bible. These constituted a norm in the sense that books on that list defined faith and practice and were the final authorities for settling matters in dispute. There appears to have been no corresponding term in Judaism in the Second Temple period, and thus, in asking which books were included in a canon at that time, one runs the risk of anachronism. Yet, while the term “canon” is not attested in the Jewish texts, the concept of inspired, authoritative books was present because many compositions document the idea that for the authors some works possessed supreme authority in the sense of defining teachings and practices and refuting opponents.


Discussions of canon, especially in relation to Qumran, tend to be at cross-purposes owing to a lack of clear definitions, and so it is important to distinguish between an authoritative text, a book of scripture, the process toward formation of the eventual canon, the Bible, and the canon.

An authoritative text is a text (e.g., a law code or a sacred book) that a community, secular or religious, acknowledges to hold authority over the members; it is a guide for the conduct of life to which all are accountable. A book of scripture is a sacred authoritative text which, in the Jewish or Christian context, the community acknowledges as having authority over the faith and practice of its members. The process toward formation of the canon (“the canonical process”) is the long journey from the community's first acknowledgment that a certain sacred text is binding for faith and practice to the final, largely agreed-upon decision that the collection of certain books, and only those books, is universally and permanently binding. The Bible, in the singular, usually carries the implication of a codex, that is, a book with a front cover, a back cover, and a defined table of contents, as opposed to the form that the scriptures would have had in the Qumran period, a collection of individual scrolls. Although the plural term “ta biblia ta hagia” (the holy books) does occur, for example, in 1 Maccabees 12.9 in a subordinate clause, it seems to denote simply a collection of sacred books available (as in the Prologue to Ben Sira), not a restricted collection; at that time Enoch and Jubilees, for example, may well have been envisioned as part of that collection, but Daniel may not have been.

The term canon, though it is used loosely in a number of ways, is a religious terminus technicus with a specific meaning used over a long history. It means the established and exclusive list of books that hold supreme authoritative status for a community. There are three aspects of the techinical use of “canon” that are important (see Ulrich, 1992): (a) “Canon” represents a reflexive judgment; that is, the community may long guide its life according to certain authoritative books, but it is not until questions are raised, debates held, and communal or official agreements made defining the exact contents that a canon properly so called comes to be; (b) It concerns books, not the specific text form of a book; for example, it is the Book of Jeremiah that is canonical or “defiles the hands,” regardless of whether it is the earlier, short edition as witnessed in the Septuagint or the later, longer, and rearranged edition witnessed in the Masoretic Text; (c) It denotes a closed list; the formation of the canon “was a task, not only of collecting, but also of sifting and rejecting” (Metzger, 1987). “The crucial element is the question of closure.…A ‘canon’ is thus by definition a way of setting limits to the books recognized as holy” (Barton, 1996).

When it is used in the context of Qumran, the question usually concerns one of two aspects: whether a certain work was acknowledged as having authoritative status as sacred scripture, or whether there existed a canon, that is, an acknowledged list of books with authoritative status as sacred scripture. This dichotomy gets to the root of the confusion: the active sense of “canonical” as norma normans, an authoritative book that governs faith and practice, in contrast to the passive sense as norma normata, the authoritative list of those books which do, in conscious exclusion of those which do not, hold supreme status as governing faith and practice. The answer to that first question is certainly positive. It is clear that certain works were long since established and acknowledged as possessing this status. But that certain books exercised authoritative status does not mean that there was a canon yet. The answer to the second question is negative: there is no evidence in the scrolls (or in wider Judaism prior to the fall of the Temple), of a considered, inclusive-and-exclusive list. The period from the early existence of some books with “canonical” (in the active sense) status to the decisions about a definitive list constitutes the process toward canon, but the canon itself is a post-biblical phenomenon. In fact, the halakhic disputes of the first century, together with the Roman threat of annihilation and the emergence of Christianity in the second, may well have been the stimuli that brought the canonical process on to the homestretch toward conclusion.

Clues in Jewish Texts.

Several Jewish texts from the Second Temple period do indicate that at least for certain groups some traditional literature of the Jewish people merited special status and study, and in some cases they offer classifications of the texts. So, for example, Ben Sira (ca. 180 bce), in praising Israel's famous ancestors in chapters 44–50 of his book, mentions characters and events from most works in the Hebrew scriptures, usually in the order that later became fixed. The list begins with Enoch and ends with the high priest Simon II (219–196 bce). On the other hand, certain major figures and books are not mentioned. Three questions can be raised: (a) Whether it was the few verses in Genesis 5 or rather the greater Enochic literature that merited Enoch's inclusion; (b) Whether Ben Sira viewed his own book as scripture, since Simon does not appear elsewhere in the Bible; and (c) Whether Ben Sira viewed his laudatory parade of heroes as a rehearsal from scripture as such or rather from his nation's proud and wise literature.

Ben Sira's grandson (after 132 bce), in his Prologue to the Greek translation of the book, refers three times to the law and the prophets and the other ancestral books. Some scholars interpret the third group as already regarded as scripture, and thus that the traditional sacred literature was already divided into three categories as it is today in the Hebrew Bible. Others, however, interpret Ben Sira's divisions as two classifications: scripture, that is, the Law and the Prophets, and the other books, not scriptural but helpful toward instruction and wisdom. Some of this latter group would later have been elevated to the rank of scripture, others would later be classified as the apocrypha or pseudepigrapha, and yet others would be simply lost. In support of the second interpretation is the absence for the next two centuries of awareness by any other author of a tripartite classification.

The author of Luke-Acts (ca. 90 ce) usually refers to the scriptures as the law (or Moses) and the prophets (Lk. 16.16, 29, 31; 24.27; Acts 26.22; 28.23), though Luke 24.44 speaks of the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms in a context where “everything must be fulfilled.” 4 Ezra 14.23–48 (ca. 100 ce) speaks of ninety-four inspired books, of which twenty-four (which may well coincide with the books of the Hebrew Bible) are said to be for all to read, whereas the other seventy are only for the wise. The latter number shows that for the author the number of inspired works was not limited to the ones in the Hebrew scriptures. This is instructive, for it illumines the danger of simply finding a single ancient reference and automatically retrojecting upon it our later categories and views. Finally, Josephus, writing at about the same time as 4 Ezra, states the number of books that are “justly accredited” as twenty-two and even lists which they are: five books of Moses, prophetic histories covering events from the time of Moses to Artaxerxes in thirteen books, and four works of hymns and precepts (Against Apion 1.37–43). These twenty-two books do not easily coincide with the books of the traditional Hebrew Bible (Beckwith, 1985), and it is noteworthy that the division between the Prophets and the Writings does not coincide with the Masoretic division.

Evidence in the Scrolls.

The writings composed by the group that inhabited Qumran have made a significant contribution to our knowledge of the topic by providing different kinds of first-hand data about which books were considered authoritative. Naturally, it is not valid to extrapolate from the Qumran evidence—just as it is not from the testimony of Ben Sira, Josephus, or 4 Ezra—to the views held by all Jews at this time, but the texts from Qumran do demonstrate what one group representing a particular Jewish tradition thought about authoritative literature in the late Second Temple period. Moreover, just as the biblical scrolls were the product of general Judaism, not of the group at Qumran, so too much of the evidence in the texts found at Qumran is evidence for the views of broader Judaism.

No text from Qumran supplies a list of which books were considered uniquely authoritative, but a number of works from Qumran refer to the Law (or Moses) and the Prophets as special categories of revelation. An example is the Rule of the Community (1QS), which is based on the Law and the Prophets. The maskil (sage) is to teach them “to seek God with all their heart and with all their soul, to do that which is good and upright before him, just as he commanded through Moses and all his servants the prophets” (1QS i.1–3).

The Miqtsat Ma῾asei ha-Torah (4Q394–4Q399 C.9–10) indicates the writers' knowledge of certain categories of books, which they wanted their opponents to understand: “[And also] we [have written] to you that you may have understanding in the book of Moses [and] in the book[s of the P]rophets and in Dav[id…].” We can be confident about which books were included in Moses' law and about many that would have been classified among the prophets; but exactly which other texts were subsumed under “prophets” is not obvious, and it is unlikely that “David” here refers to anything beyond Psalms. After “David” the damaged sequel in the fragments (“[…] generation after generation”) may add yet another book or category—perhaps annals.

Since none of the scrolls gives a list of authoritative books, one must search for other ways of uncovering which books (leaving aside the issue of oral traditions) enjoyed supreme status at Qumran. A study of the texts shows that there is evidence for the authoritative status of a large number of books that would become part of the fixed Hebrew Bible at a later time and for the authoritative status of some other writings that did not find their way into the official Hebrew Bible.

  • 1. One approach is to check which books are cited as authorities and how the citations are introduced. There is a series of Qumran texts in which the writers refer to a book and introduce it as the words of God. For instance, the Damascus Document introduces a quotation of Ezekiel 44.15 with “as God promised them by the prophet Ezekiel” (CD iii.20–21); and the same text prefaces a citation of Isaiah 24.17 with “just as God said by Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz, saying” (CD iv.13–14). See also CD vi.13–14 (Malachi); viii.9 (Deuteronomy); and ix.7–8 (Leviticus).
  • 2. Another method is to check which books were considered worthy of commentary. To compose a commentary on a book, especially considering the amount of labor required for doing so in antiquity, was to attribute a high level of importance to it, and the pesharim among the scrolls provide even more evidence that the writers of the commentaries believed those books—the writings of God's servants the prophets—to have been revealed and to contain the keys for understanding the latter days in which they were living. The commentaries that have been indentified are on the books of Isaiah (six: 3Q4; 4Q161–65), Hosea (two: 4Q166–67), Micah (one: 1Q14; cf 4Q168), Nahum (one: 4Q169), Habakkuk (one: 1QpHab), Zephaniah (two: 1Q15; 4Q170), and Psalms (three: 1Q16; 4Q171; and 4Q173).
  • 3. The number of copies found and the frequency of citation also provide, though not proof, some indication of status. The Pentateuch and the Prophets, including Psalms and Daniel, are heavily represented, as are Enoch and Jubilees. But the Writings are sparse and seldom quoted.
  • 4. In addition to the cases in which books now in the Hebrew Bible are quoted or alluded to as authorities, there is a saturated and pervasive influence of the language of the scriptural books on the writings composed at Qumran.
  • 5. There are also a number of indications that some books that did not become part of the Hebrew Bible were accorded lofty status at Qumran. First, the claim that all 4,050 of David's compositions, not just those in the Psalter, were spoken “through prophecy given him by the Most High” is made in 11QPsalmsa (11Q5 27.11). The fact that these poetic works were considered prophecy harmonizes well with the existence of pesharim on parts of Psalms, as well as the New Testament's use of the Psalms as prophecy. Second, the commentary on Habakkuk states that the Teacher of Righteousness was the one “to whom God made known all the mysteries of the words of his servants the Prophets” (1QpHab vii.4–5). Third, there are several books that present themselves as revelations from God, are present in multiple copies at Qumran, and exercised noticeable levels of influence on other Qumran texts. The best examples are the booklets of Enoch (quoted as scripture in Jude) and the Book of Jubilees (quoted in the Damascus Document). A different type of case is the Temple Scroll (11Q19 and 11Q20), which presents itself as the direct speech of God to Moses and which embodies legal material that was accepted at Qumran.

The Jewish texts found at Qumran and those composed there give us a glimpse into the time between the two points when much of the “biblical” literature was written and when it was formally recognized in a canon of scripture. They provide evidence that many of the books that would become the Hebrew Bible were regarded as authoritative and were so used, but they also show that the boundaries and classifications of authoritative literature were not yet settled in Judaism.


  • Barr, James. Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism. Philadelphia, 1983.
    An insightful and careful discussion of canon and related issues
  • Barton, John. “The Significance of a Fixed Canon of the Hebrew Bible.” In Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: The History of Its Interpretation, edited by Magne Sæø, vol. 1 part 1, pp. 67–83. Göttingen, 1996.
    A recent and thoughtful discussion of the implications of canonicity
  • Beckwith, Roger. The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1985.
    An impressive and highly useful accumulation of data covering many aspects of the canon of the Hebrew Bible, but maximalist in its interpretation of the data, pushing the formation of the canon centuries too early. Should be read with the review by Albert C.Sundberg, Jr., “Reexamining the Formation of the Old Testament Canon.” Interpretation 42 (1988), 78–82
  • Beyer, H. W. “κανών.” In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 3. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1965, pp. 596–602.
    A foundational and informative overview
  • Leiman, Sid Z. The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture: The Talmudic and Midrashic Evidence. Hamden, Conn., 1976.
    A survey of the Talmudic and Midrashic evidence, offering a historical reconstruction of the closing of the biblical canon
  • Metzger, Bruce. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. Oxford, 1987.
    An excellent, balanced, and nuanced discussion primarily of the New Testament canon, but very useful for clear thinking about the canon of the Hebrew Bible
  • Sanders, James A. “Canon.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, pp. 837–852. New York, 1992.
    A comprehensive and well-seasoned overview of the issues, including the scrolls
  • Ulrich, Eugene. “The Canonical Process, Textual Criticism, and Latter Stages in the Composition of the Bible.” In “Sha῾arei Talmon”: Studies in the Bible, Qumran, and the Ancient Near East Presented to Shemaryahu Talmon, edited by Michael Fishbane and Emanuel Tov with Weston W. Fields, pp. 267–291. Winona Lake, Ind., 1992.
    An attempt to sort out some of the issues of canon in light of the scrolls and the compositional process of the biblical texts
  • VanderKam, James C. “Authoritative Literature in the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Dead Sea Discoveries 5 (1998), 382–402.
    A richly detailed and judicious exposition of the period illuminated by the scrolls, when many of the scriptural books were authoritative but prior to the formal recognition of the canon of scripture

Eugene Ulrich