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Ketuvim, the name of the third section of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible),means simply “Writings”, which hardly does justice to the variety of religious expression found there. There is poetry–of Temple ritual, private prayer, wisdom, national tragedy, even love. There is philosophical exploration–of the wisest path in life, of God‘s goodness and justice. There are historical retellings and short stories. Ketuvim might better be translated as “the anthology,” the canonical collection from the post-prophetic age.
Most of the individual books in Ketuvim were written or at least put in final form in Judea during the period of Persian and Hellenistic rule, from the fifth through the second centuries BCE. The Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed in the Babylonian conquest of 586, had been rebuilt around 515. The text of the Torah was standardized not long after, but there was no more prophecy after Malachi. Clues of language, literary style, and content have led scholars to see most of Ketuvim as “Second Temple” works.
Unlike the Torah and the books of Prophets (Nevi’im), the works found in Ketuvim do not present themselves as the fruits of direct divine inspiration. (Daniel is the one exception.) What makes books like Psalms and Job so remarkable is their humanity, the “I” who dares to voice questions and doubts about God in the face of danger or suffering. Ultimately, each of the Ketuvim affirms a hard-won commitment to God and covenant. Without divine miracles or national glory, there were only the words of Torah and Prophets to hold onto, proven reliable by Israel’s difficult history and carried forward by people of wisdom.
How the various works of Ketuvim came to be canonized together is not known. Fragments of every book except for Esther are found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date as early as the second century BCE. Not until the first century CE are there sources that hint at a recognized Jewish canon in three parts.
After the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE, the rabbis of the following century canonized the books of Ketuvim. Certain of the Ketuvim were associated with figures from Nevi’im, probably from early on–Proverbs and Song of Songs with King Solomon, Lamentations with Jeremiah, and Psalms as a whole with King David. The Talmud records the rabbis’ disagreements over whether to include Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, and suggests that Esther too was not unanimously approved.
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