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How We Got the Hebrew Bible: The Older View

Now that I’ve given some terms and definitions (in yesterday’s post) I can start talking about how it is we got the books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: who chose the books to include, when they did so, and on the basis of what criteria.  Before laying out what scholars today tend to think, I need to provide some information about what *used* to be the standard view (this older view is still held by some, who are not abreast on changes in scholarship over the past twenty or thirty years.)   That will be today’s post.  Again, this information comes from my textbook on the Bible.



The term “canon” comes from the Greek word for “reed” or “rod.” A canon was a straight edge that was used, for example, by a carpenter to make sure that an alignment was correct; but it could also be used as a measuring stick. Eventually the word “canon” came to be applied in other contexts, by analogy, to refer to a rule or standard by which something could be judged, and in that sense it came to be applied to a collection or list of books. In particular it referred to some kind of official or accepted or standard list of books seen to “fall in line.” And so today we might speak of the canon of Shakespeare—which would be the plays and sonnets that he actually wrote—or the canon of Canadian literature (the books widely recognized as “great” literature of the country), or the canon of the Hebrew Bible.

The Older View of the Formation of the Canon

For many years there was a more or less standard, widely accepted view about when the canon of the Tanakh came to be formed. This view maintained that …

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How We Got the Hebrew Bible
What is the Hebrew Bible?



  1. Avatar
    wostraub  January 2, 2017

    Would it be correct to say that Christianity today is also a religion “of the book”? If the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE forced Jews to focus on their scriptures, did the Enlightenment and modern science force Christians to effectively become Bible worshipers (which is how I see the religion today)?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2017

      Yes, I’d say Christianity became very much a religion of the book (in some of its better known manifestations)

  2. Avatar
    Jana  January 2, 2017

    OK .. this is all new information and I would like to check my understanding. So this is a question .. although the Torah was accepted at such an early date, but we do not have a complete Torah or the Hebrew Bible dating this far back? (eg “The oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible that we have, which is the basis for modern printings, is called the Codex Leningradensis (since it was located in Leningrad, Russia”). It dates to about the year 1000 CE. We do not have any complete manuscripts of the Bible before this.) So do we really know what the original Torah consisted or the Hebrew Bible? Digressing did the destruction of the Temple then give credence to the Apocalyptic words of St. John and Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2017

      1. Yes, we have pretty good reasons for thinking that we know what was originally in the Torah (our surviving manuscripts match quotations of the text by much earlier authors, e.g.; and now with the Dead Sea Scrolls our findings have been confirmed) 2. It did to some Christians!

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  January 2, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, I’ve spotted a surprising error in your text. Jamnia — or as it is called in the Hebrew, Yavne — is not and was not a “Galilean” town. Yavne is actually a coastal town, roughly 20 miles south of present day Tel Aviv. Indeed, Yavne or Jamnia was probably part of the Philistine territory that was inherited by Herod’s sister Shlomit (Salome), and upon Salome’s death came under direct control of the Roman Emperor. Hence, that’s probably why Titus allowed Yochanan ben Zakkai and the Sanhedrin to set up shop there as a place of refuge, because Jamnia was, technically, independent of Judea and Galilee.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2017

      Ah, that’s interesting. Thanks. I’m not sure why I’ve always located it in Galilee. Probably because of something I read by an author who got it from someone else who got it from someone else — and never bothered to look it up!

      • talmoore
        talmoore  January 3, 2017

        I suppose either you or your sources had confused Jamnia with Usha, a city in the Galilee to which the Sanhedrin and Rabbis moved a few decades later. (They then briefly moved back to Jamnia, only to return to the Galilee, this time to Tiberius, and so, eventually, the Sandhedrin and Yeshivot were firmly established in the Galilee by end of the 2nd century.)

      • Avatar
        dankoh  January 15, 2017

        Possibly there is a common confusion between the rabbinic council of Yavneh and the later groups of rabbis who were responsible for what is called the Jerusalem Talmud but which was really mostly from Galilee.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 2, 2017

    Could you explain for us again – I’ve forgotten – the differences in the beliefs of Sadducees and Pharisees? I’m fairly sure the Sadducees didn’t believe in a coming “Kingdom,” and the Pharisees did. But…what else?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2017

      The ones that are typically cited are that unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees did not accept the authority of any books that made it into the Bible except the Torah, they did not subscribe to the existence of angels, and they did not believe in the future resurrection of the dead.

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 2, 2017

    Glad to see the Edit feature will work with Safari again – thanks for fixing it!

  6. Avatar
    dankoh  January 2, 2017

    Side point: I believe this is the reason for much of the animus the NT displays toward the Pharisees; after the destruction, the Jesus movement certainly expected to become mainstream Judaism, and pointed to the destruction itself as “proof” that God was on their side.The Pharisees (rabbis) were their major competition, now that the Sadducees had lost their power base and most of their numbers, and the Essenes were never that popular.

  7. Avatar
    toejam  January 2, 2017

    Quick question: I have a copy of Sir Lancelot C.L Brenton’s 1851 reconstruction and English translation of the Septuagint. It was the only version of the Septuagint I could find at my local bookstore that included both the Greek and the English side by side. Has much progress been made since Brenton’s work? Is there a better reconstruction and English translation available? Is Brenton’s work still considered usable for a layman such as myself to get to know the Septuagint, or has it been found to be deeply flawed by later findings and scholarly work?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2017

      Yes, a ton of work has been done since then. See the newer edition by two fine scholars, Albert Pietersma and Benjamin Wright: https://www.amazon.com/New-English-Translation-Septuagint/dp/0195289757/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1483436093&sr=8-1&keywords=septuagint+in+English

      • Avatar
        Prizm  January 4, 2017

        In regards to Brenton’s Septuagint, he mentions in the introduction that the quality of the translation from hebrew to greek varies significantly, with the Torah being the best translated, and Isaiah being the worst translated. Would you happen to know if this perspective is still considered valid today?

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  January 6, 2017

        Bart, from what little I know, the Orthodox faith (such as at http://www.theorthodoxfaith.com/the-bible-of-the-early-church) assumes that LXX is a reliable translation of early Hebrew scriptures and argues that “Greek speaking Jews were converting to Christianity because, in part, they were reading in the Septuagint” which lent support to many Christian beliefs. The Orthodox claim that other Jews, in reaction, changed the Hebrew so that, in key verses at least, it no longer offered support to Christian beliefs and that this revised Hebrew became the Masoretic version.. Does the fact that much of Dead Sea Scroll Hebrew is closer to LXX Greek than to the Masoretic version support this Orthodox view?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 8, 2017

          Most of the DSS line up very nicely with the surviving Hebrew text. There are some exceptions, such as Jeremiah.

  8. Avatar
    Jason  January 2, 2017

    Dr. E- sorry to ask a sideways question but I seem to remember at one point you mentioned you were working on a book about the triumph of Christianity among the soup of religions brewing in the Mediterranean in the millennium surrounding the life of Jesus, but I don’t see it or anything I haven’t read in the bibliography-is that still in the works, did it become something else, or did I just fabricate the memory? Thanks, and happy new year!

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2017

      Yes, the book is done and at the publishers. It will be out in November, if all goes to plan.

  9. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 2, 2017

    is there any reason to think that, if Christianity had remained a sect within Judaism, books a bit similar to some of those in the NT would have been included in the Hebrew Bible – as long as those books were consistent with Judaism? Or was it pretty much too late by then and/or Jesus too recent a figure?

    Or were there other compendiums that NT-similar books could have been included in? I’m thinking of something along the lines of the Mishnah – about which I recall very little.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2017

      No, I don’t think any books that assumed or taught that Jesus was the messiah would have any chance of making it into the canon of the Hebrew Bible. And yes, by the time of Jesus it was really too late for any books to be included anyway.

    • Avatar
      dankoh  January 15, 2017

      I would say that if Jesus has been left to stay dead, he might have eventually become a minor figure in rabbinic Judaism, to be quoted in support of or in opposition to various positions. But once his followers resurrected him and made belief in his resurrection a sine qua non for salvation, there was no way any of the branches of Judaism could have accepted him as within the boundaries of Judaism. And that does not take into account Paul’s expansion of the Jesus message to the uncircumcised (who were allowed to stay that way), and the later belief that Jesus was in some way God.

      As Bart points out, the canon was closed before Jesus (technically, the closing was done after Jesus, but they only accepted books written well before that). I would also point out that the age of prophecy had ended around 400 BCE with Malachi, so for Judaism to have accepted Jesus as a prophet would have meant opening the door to more prophecies, and none of the branches of Judaism wanted to do that.

  10. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 2, 2017

    I know very little about Islam and the Qur’an. I believe the latter includes material from the Hebrew Bible and also speaks of Jesus with respect and as an important prophet. I wonder if Islam and the Qur’an provide any clues about how Jews might have seen Jesus had Christianity remained a sect within Judaism. Or is that just too speculative?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2017

      Since the Quran is so many centuries later, I’m not sure it would help for knowing what might have happened in, say, the first or second century CE.

      • Avatar
        Nawaz Arshad  January 18, 2017

        Prof. Bart – Surely you are right, the Qur’an was revealed centuries later and it wouldn’t be of any help in giving out correct history of what happened in the times of Jesus unless it’s a divine revelation which it is and challenges Humanity to prove otherwise but no one has been able to meet the challenge for 1400 Years!

        P.S : I’m Muslim and recently joined the blog!

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  January 18, 2017

          The burden of proof is not on those who do not believe it is a divine revelation. It is on anyone who would claim his or her scriptures are indeed a divine revelation. Lots of faith believe this about their scriptures. The question is how to prove it, if you’re interested in that sort of thing. Extraordinary claims call for extraordinary evidence.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  January 3, 2017

      Muhammad and Islam were directly influenced by the resurgence of Jewish Messianism of the early 7th century. In fact, for a brief time, the Jews had an independent state, led by a messianic figure named Nehemiah, which aroused Jewish messianic fervor around the world. (This Wikipedia page is a good gateway into the historical events that precipitated the Jewish messianic movement that led directly to Muhammad’s Islamic movement: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_revolt_against_Heraclius )
      There are also passages within the Qur’an that directly echo the Talmud and other Rabbincal teachings associated with this Messianic movement, strongly suggesting that Muhammad was familiar with them.

      • Avatar
        Nawaz Arshad  January 19, 2017

        @talmoore : I’m not sure how it is linked to Prophet Muhammad in the first place, could you explain how it influenced him? Because, he was not learned, couldn’t read or write and he lived in the city of mecca which didn’t had Jewish population so how exactly it influenced him? I would be interested to know!

    • Avatar
      Nawaz Arshad  January 18, 2017

      The Qur’an surely talks about previous Prophets and provides the accurate picture of historical events since some things have been associated to Prophets which are false and same is the case of Jesus! Although Qur’an confirms Jesus is the Messiah but no God incarnate but a mighty Prophet of God. The Jews simply rejected him because they thought he was a Bastard ( God forbid ) even after seeing his many miracles and one miracle in particular when he spoke as a baby in the cradle and made it clear he’s the Prophet of God but they ( Jews ) said, it’s plain magic!

      • Bart
        Bart  January 18, 2017

        Thanks for your insight about the Qur’an. About the Jews: I don’t think you can lump them all together and say they believe only one thing (about Jesus or anyone / anything else). Different Jews believe different things.

        • Avatar
          Nawaz Arshad  January 18, 2017

          Prof. Bart – I didn’t intended to meant all of them but the Rabbis and Jewish clergy rejected him and many indeed accepted him. I would be more careful with my words selection! Surely, many believe different things.

  11. Avatar
    Dhul_Qarnayn  January 3, 2017

    can’t wait for the next post

  12. Avatar
    Hume  January 3, 2017

    Wow, I just signed up for the Great Courses Plus. It has everything! Let me suggest it to the entire world.

  13. Avatar
    rap2016  January 11, 2017

    Ladies and Gentleman
    Your comments are very Romantic and innocent. The Renaissance Period did not begin until 16th Century. The age of enlightenment. Most people, that is 99%, could NOT READ OR WRITE in ancient times.
    During the middle ages, that is 5th to 15th Century, Europe was resource poor, food poor, institutionally poor. The Hebrew manuscripts that scholars refer to are FAKE. When the renaissance began, people realised the power of the written word and how it can shape and CONTROL peoples THINKING. So documents were faked for political reasons. Not for telling the truth. People did not have the expertise to recognize a fake.
    Now people have become clever at deceiving Historians by producing fake manuscripts that appear legitimate. They use chemicals and ageing techniques.
    Do you really believe that a community of goat and cattle herding nomads had the inclination, time and resources to dedicate their energy into creating and developing an ALPHABET and then a writing system and then teach it, in ancient times.
    The only people who had a writing system was the ancient Egyptians. Their civilisation was a least 9000 years, when Alexander the Great invaded. in 332 BC.
    Do your research. Don’t take my word.
    I await comments.
    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2017

      Well, if only Egyptians could write we would not have ancient manuscripts in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and lots of other languages. And no one thinks the Dead Sea Scrolls (dating from before the days of Jesus) are modern fakes!

    • Avatar
      dankoh  January 15, 2017

      We have samples of writing in the earliest Phoenician alphabet dating back to 1500 BCE. The Phoenicians were seafaring traders and it is no stretch of the imagination at all to see that they would need to develop a writing system to keep track of their trades, sales, taxes, etc. Hebrew in pre-exilic times (before 586 BCE) was written in a variant on the Phoenician alphabet; again, we have numerous samples of this writing in the form of ostraca (pottery shards) dating back to at least 900 BCE.

      The Sumerians developed cuneiform writing by about 3000 BCE in order to maintain their empire, keep track of taxes, land distribution, etc. I have been in a storeroom in the British Museum which contains at least 100,000 clay tablets in cuneiform, many dating back to the earliest times. Cuneiform was still in use until the first century CE for languages other than Sumerian, much as Latin letters are used to write modern languages that have nothing to do with Latin. Biblical archeologists have found cuneiform exercise tablets in Israel dating back to the 8th century BCE; these were done by Israelite scribes being trained to use cuneiform.

      And I haven’t even started on the Chinese.

      Oh, by the way, shouting is considered POOR manners on the internet.

  14. Avatar
    rap2016  January 13, 2017

    Hello Bart
    Thank you for your reply.
    Could you identify the manuscripts that your referring to.
    The Greek manuscripts and Hebrew manuscripts where when and by whom were they written.
    Thank you..

    • Bart
      Bart  January 14, 2017

      The Hebrew manuscripts: e,g, the Dead Sea Scrolls. Greek: we have thousands of personal letters and literary texts that turned up in Oxyrhynchus. And hundreds and hundreds of other texts.

  15. Avatar
    rap2016  January 15, 2017

    Hello Bart
    “The Dead Sea Scrolls” say nothing about a “Jesus the Christ” by that name……..
    Do you not suspect anything remarkable about these scripts. They allege to be exact copies of current books, for example Isaiah. Once again I remind that Fraudery is a skilled art these days deceiving forensic professionals. I have not herd of a unanimous claim of their authenticity.
    We see and hear in the US fake news is damaging democracy and genuine news.

    You say “Thousands of personal letters and literary text” found in Oxyrhynchus
    Have I not herd you speak on this at some point saying that if we have a few scripts and people then copy to make many many copies this does not increase our resource bank of original copies.
    What language are these manuscripts and literary accounts?
    Have the authors been Identified? I await your comments.
    Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2017

      The letters at Oxyrhynchus are originals. They are in Greek.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  January 16, 2017

      The scrolls mention two or three other expected messiahs but, correct, not J.C. Isaiah is the only complete biblical manuscript (scroll) we have from the finds at Qumran. It was found among all the partial scrolls and fragments and all have been verified and tested–some going as far back as 250 BCE and all ending about 68 CE when Qumran was evacuated. I’ve not read of any serious challenges to their authenticity.

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