For most modern Jews, the biblical canon consists of 24 books, beginning with the Five Books of Moses and continuing through the Prophets (Nevi’im) and Writings (Ketuvim). This particular list is quite old, going back at least to the ninth century. But this collection did not descend from heaven prefabricated. Rather it developed slowly, with each of its parts gaining authority over time.
We can catch glimpses of this process by tracing the way certain works were cited by the literature that followed it. If asked to prove that the earth was round, we would not recreate the math, but would point instead to authoritative sources. Similarly, in the ancient world, proving a religious truth required one to cite an authoritative text. To cite a text as proof is to rely on its authority.
In the Book of Kings, for example, we are told that Hilkhia, the High Priest, finds a “Book of Law.” He has it read before Josiah, the Judean king, who in turn tears his clothing and proclaims: “Our ancestors did not obey the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.” The shock of failing to live up to these authoritative words prompts Josiah to ignite a religious revolution. That Josiah succeeded, and that Deuteronomy became an authoritative source, is evident from the Book of Kings, which tells us that King Amatzia, in seeking to secure his throne, put to death the men who killed his father but not their children. Why? Because it “is written in the book of the law of Moses, where the Lord commanded, ‘The parents shall not be put to death for the children, or the children be put to death for the parents; but all shall be put to death for their own sins.’” The citation is Deuteronomy 24:16.
The Pentateuch, as a complete unit of five books, was viewed as canonical by the start of the Second Temple period. Numerous religious activities mentioned in the book of Ezra-Nehemiah, which recounts the building of the Second Temple, are authorized by citing “that which is written in the law of Moses.”
But the books that now constitute the Ketuvim underwent significant development during this period, slowly rising in authority and status. The Book of Psalms contained sometimes more and sometimes less than the 150 psalms it includes today. Fragments of the book of Esther have not been found at Qumran, suggesting that the community there did not treat it as canonical. Even texts from the Ketuvim that do appear, such as Ezra-Nehemiah, do so in such a small quantity relative to other biblical texts as to imply their decreased status.
This historical process did not inevitably lead to the 24-book rabbinic canon. Rather, ancient Jews competed with each other over the meaning of Jewish identity by forming canons of their own.
The Jews at Qumran, for example, consider the Books of Enoch and the Book of Jubilees authoritative, both of which cohered with their deterministic worldview and their solar-based Jewish calendar. Meanwhile, the Greek-speaking Jews of Egypt crafted an extended canon that included works such as Ben Sira and 1-4 Maccabees. While their canon contains all the 24 books in our canon, it does so in a different order, favoring historical sequence over other forms of division. Early Jewish followers of Jesus supplemented the Greek canon with works of their own, texts that eventually became the New Testament canon. Samaritan Jews, by contrast, considered only the Pentateuch as authoritative.
Even the ancient rabbis themselves offer a vision of the canon that differs slightly from the version we know today. According to one rabbinic tradition, the Book of Isaiah follows Jeremiah and Ezekiel. In short, our 24-book rabbinic canon is but one of many possible canons.
Why did the rabbis make the choices they did? At least four selection criteria are evident.
- Old over new: The rabbis equated authority with antiquity. Only authors who wrote in the distant past deserved the respect of biblical authority. Thus, the books of wisdom perceived to have been penned by Solomon are accepted as canonical while the equally wise work of the more contemporary Ben Sira was not. History as told in Samuel and Kings is sacred; not so that of 1-2 Maccabees.
- Hebrew over Greek: The rabbis bind authority to the language they considered holy. Only works in Hebrew (and to some degree Aramaic) are considered canonical. Greek works – even when ascribed to ancient authors – deserve no place in the canon. Thus, the Wisdom of Solomon, although attributed to an ancient author, is excluded.
- Tradition over Heresy: The rabbis imagine a society based on tradition and ancestral practices. This leaves no room for works that offer a vision of Judaism that substantially differs from their own. Books like Enoch and Jubilees, which demand Judaism adhere to a solar calendar, fundamentally clash with the rabbinic vision of a Judaism based on a joint lunar-solar calendar.
- Interpretation over Text: In a similar vein, even books that were already considered canonical by the rabbis could have their circulation questioned. The rabbis sought to remove Ecclesiastes from the biblical roster because they found its words self-contradictory. They decided against doing so since the book begins and ends with words of Torah. Likewise, the talmudic sage Hanania ben Hizkiya is praised for resolving numerous contradictions between Ezekiel and the Pentateuch, thus saving Ezekiel from the dustbin of history.
The formation of the biblical canon is a long historical process of grappling with ancient texts, but it’s of greater value than just winning arguments. To create a canon is ultimately to craft a community. Ancient Jews, with their varying collections of authoritative texts, were saddled with irreconcilable differences, ultimately leading to division and dissolution.
By sharing the 24-book rabbinic canon, modern Jews share a fundamental Jewish identity. We still argue — but about their interpretation, not about what is considered authoritative.
Abraham Berkovitz is a historian of Judaism and an assistant professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion.