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How We Got the Hebrew Bible

Here at last I can summarize what modern scholars say about the formation of the canon of the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament).  It’s a fascinating topic, of relevance, of course, to Jews, Christians, and anyone else who thinks the history of our civilization matters!  This summary is taken from my book The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction (If the terms I use here don’t make sense: read the preceding two posts!)


Contemporary Views of the Formation of the Canon

Today scholars tend to present a somewhat fuzzier picture of when and why the canon came to be formed, although there do seem to be some fixed points. It is widely held that the five books of the Torah were accepted by nearly all Jews as a set canon by the fifth century b.c.e., in the early postexilic period. One piece of evidence comes from the Bible itself, in a post-exilic book, Ezra. The scribe Ezra himself is described as being “skilled in the Torah of Moses that the LORD the God of Israel had given” (Ezra 7:6). This suggests that it was widely known that there was a “Torah of Moses” and that the educated elite were sometimes being trained in understanding and interpreting it. The Torah is and always has been the same five books, and they have always been given in the same sequence (Genesis-Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers-Deuteronomy), since they trace a chronological tale. And so by the fifth century b.c.e., most Jews probably accepted the Torah as an authoritative group of texts connected principally with Moses.

The next sub-collection to be finalized was the …

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Why Did We Get a New Testament?
How We Got the Hebrew Bible: The Older View



  1. Avatar
    Tom  January 3, 2017

    Thanks, Dr. E. Now are you going to tell us how the Hebrew Bible became Xtn scripture?


  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 3, 2017

    That “Usage” criterion seems very much a parallel of the way various “books” came to be accepted as part of the *New* Testament!

    A related thought: Do Jews today resent their scriptures being called, by non-Jews, the *Old* Testament?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2017

      Depends which Jews you talk to. I know a lot of Christian scholars who find the term Old Testament offensive (since the term is Christian-centric)

      • Avatar
        turbopro  January 5, 2017

        Prof, if I may ask please: but who gave the Hebrew Bible the name, “Old Testament?”

        Should I dare surmise that that moniker was meant to be less than flattering, if not downright offensive.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 6, 2017

          We don’t have a record of who did it first. It was already called this by the end of the second century. It was not meant to be offensive, but to clarify that Christians had a “new” covenant/testament in the death of Jesus (requiring, thereofre, that the older covenant/testament be called something else)

  3. Avatar
    Jana  January 3, 2017

    Do we know if the Jewish Bible evolved from an oral tradition? How literate were the early Jewish people?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2017

      Much of it did — virtually the entire Pentateuch, e.g. Most ancient Israelites were illiterate (just as virtually everyone else was as well).

      • Avatar
        Jana  January 6, 2017

        Then do we know even how much older the Bible is when considering an oral tradition? Fascinating really.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 8, 2017

          I’m not sure what you’re asking: is the Bible older than what?

        • Avatar
          Saemund  January 9, 2017

          The Bible isn’t any older. The Bible is the written collection of books, so its age is sort of set, if you will. It’s as old as when it was written. The fact that a portion of the Hebrew Bible originated from oral traditions simply means that *the stories* found in it are older than the Bible.

  4. Avatar
    stokerslodge  January 3, 2017

    Bart, how did the septuagint end up with more books than the hebrew bible, and were those extra books regarded as scripture at the beginning of the Christian Era ?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2017

      It’s because some Jewish groups revered more books than others, especially in Greek-speaking areas. Some of these other groups did use these other books as Scripture.

  5. Avatar
    dankoh  January 3, 2017

    Very interesting. A couple of thoughts:

    I believe there is some argument that Esther was finally accepted into the canon after the destruction of 70 CE. The book was controversial because it is the only one that never mentions God; in fact, Mordechai goes out of his way to avoid saying God (he tells Esther that if she does not try to save the Jews, help will come “from another place”).

    Judith was seriously considered for inclusion, but ultimately rejected (according to later commentators) because she used a sword to cut off Holofernes’ head, and the sword was a man’s weapon that a woman was not allowed to use.

    In one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, there is a description of Daniel as a prophet, which suggests to me that even in the first cent. BCE, there was some argument over his classification.

    Finally, I think your concluding paragraph deserves highlighting and emphasis: The Hebrew Bible is not a seamless whole. It is a collection spanning over a thousand years of Israelite thought, which changed over time, meaning that these were Israelites talking to each other. It was not meant to be a universal document, and was not, until Paul.

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  January 3, 2017

    The Book of Esther has the unique distinction of becoming canon primarily because Jews were already celebrating a holiday — i.e. Purim — in honor of it. Like Hanukkah, Purim was one of those Jewish holidays created in the wake of the Maccabean revolt, meant to inspire Jewish unity and hope.

  7. Avatar
    James  January 3, 2017

    Why regard the Jewish order as the original and the Christian as the reconfiguration? Several of the books of the Kethuvim seem to be accretions to larger books (e.g. Ruth to Judges, Lamentations to Jeremiah, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes to Proverbs) – couldn’t their original place be just that, as accretions, and the Jewish order a sort of proto-Apocrypha in moving all the accretions to the end? Still need to explain Job, Psalms, and Proverbs though, I suppose.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2017

      I don’t talk in terms of “original” because I’m not sure there was anything like an original order. Different communities (both Jewish and Christian) at different times had different books in different orders.

  8. Avatar
    mjt  January 3, 2017

    I’ve spent a lot of time looking at arguments for the dating of Daniel (and it seems to me that Daniel is indeed a late book.) For scholars who hold to an early dating of Daniel, could they argue–that whatever committee voted to include Daniel, would not have been fooled by a forgery written within the past couple centuries?

    By comparison, that would be like modern scholars mistakenly thinking that an 19th century writing was actually written in the 15th century.

    • Avatar
      mjt  January 3, 2017

      I hope that makes sense–to reiterate, let’s say that a committee met around Jesus’ time to finalize the canon. If Daniel was written in 165 BC, it’s only 200 years old at that time. Is it realistic to think that they would be fooled into thinking a 200 year old book was really a 600 year old book?

      • Bart
        Bart  January 5, 2017

        I think it would be very different indeed, because now we have mass literacy and excellent tools for dating books. Nothing like that was available in antiquity. It was very common indeed (and extremely well documented) that ancient people were mistaken about when books were written, often being off by many centuries. Happened all the time.

        • Avatar
          mjt  January 5, 2017

          There have been scholars (Kenneth Kitchen and Norman Geisler the most notable) who have argued that because of the Imperial Aramaic, Daniel most likely was written in the 6th century, as the language doesn’t fit in well with the 2nd century. I’ve had a difficult time finding arguments to the contrary. Are you aware of scholars who have argued against this view?

          • Bart
            Bart  January 6, 2017

            Norman Geisler couldn’t read a word of Aramaic if his life depended on it. In fact, Aramaic does not become the language of Palestine until centuries after the 6th century; it is one of the reasons almost everyone thinks that Daniel is from the second century. (There are lots of other reasons; it’s not really debated among critical scholars)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2017

      I think it would be very different indeed, because now we have mass literacy and excellent tools for dating books. Nothing like that was available in antiquity. It was very common indeed (and extremely well documented) that ancient people were mistaken about when books were written, often being off by many centuries. Happened all the time.

  9. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 3, 2017

    If the canon was pretty much fixed by 70 CE, the Septuagint must have been introduced prior to that. Are there any general reasons for the differences – other than that the canon wasn’t fixed until after the Septuagint was introduced?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2017

      Scholars today are reluctant to talk about “the” Septuagint. There were lots of Greek translations, probably, floating around — the Septuagint was not a single translation done at one time and place. But there were certainly Greek versions available to the writers of the New Testament and other Jews living throughout the Greek-speaking Diaspora.

      • TWood
        TWood  January 10, 2017

        1. Within the various “Septuagints,” do we find them including the Apocrypha?

        2. I know the MT doesn’t include the Apocrypha, but do we have enough evidence to know if the Dead Sea Scrolls did (I read they did include some of it)?—if they did, that’d mean one Hebrew canon had it (DSS) and one didn’t (MT), right?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 11, 2017

          Yes, the Apocrypha are in Greek mss of the OT. That’s a good question about the DSS and off hand I don’t recall!

  10. Avatar
    Prizm  January 4, 2017

    Great article, thanks

  11. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  January 4, 2017

    I think I recently read somewhere that there was no “Council of Jamnia.” Is the evidence for such a council solid, in your opinion?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2017

      My sense is that it is now widely thought that the picture is a lot murkier than that there was a one-time council held in Jamnia that decided such things as the canon of the Hebrew Bible.

  12. Avatar
    Chuck205  January 4, 2017

    May not be a good question, but why was canon observed in an area which cannot be properly measured in the first place? Why was it closed and not subject to amendment based on scientific interpretation or new revelation? It is not like something that is quantifiable.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2017

      It’s actually an open quesiton whether the canon was “closed” and when — but one reason for deciding not to include new books was precisely to forestall the possibility of “new” revelation that might contradict the “old.” Science, of course, didn’t enter into the question at all.

      • Avatar
        Chuck205  January 5, 2017

        Has any group ever attempted to reopen either the old or new testament canon following the enlightenment?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 6, 2017

          Yes, some people have argued that some books (e.g., 1 Timothy) should not be granted full canonical status, or that others should be considered (Gospel of Thomas). But the reality is that the canon will never change.

  13. Avatar
    dragonfly  January 4, 2017

    Thank you, this is really interesting stuff. Was Daniel written in Hebrew or Aramaic?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2017

      Strangely, Daniel 2.4b-7:28 is in Aramaic; the rest is in Hebrew.

  14. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  January 4, 2017

    Bart … Question .. Psalm 82:1

    God presides in the great assembly;
    he renders judgment among the “gods”:

    What is this saying ?

    One more question …

    Gospel of Thomas

    (30) Jesus said, “Where there are three gods, they are gods. Where there are two or one, I am with him.”

    What are they saying ?

    I know….
    (30) Jesus said, “Where there are three gods, they are gods. Where there are two or one, I am with him.”

    Jesus there ! Gods ! Gods are one with …..

    With one are Gods… Gods ! There ! Jesus !

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2017

      These texts are presupposing that there are other “divine beings” beside the one God, and these others too can be called gods.

    • Avatar
      smackemyackem  January 5, 2017

      The way I understand it…this is similar to the Baal Cycle. It should actually read…”’Elohim stands in the council of ’El
      In the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” Elohim being YHWH. YHWH is part of the divine council, rises up and takes control from El…El being the chief God. El (Most High). It is followed by…”I said, “You are gods, sons of Elyon, all of you;nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.”

      “….clear parallel to the Ugaritic Baal Cycle. In the Baal Cycle, the high god El who presides over the council has called for a cessation of violence among the gods and intends to crown Yamm (“Sea”)—the god of the chaotic seas—king over all the earth, and to hand over Baal to Yamm as a prisoner according to Yamm’s demand. But Baal rebukes
      the council of the gods for their cowardice before Yamm. He then defies El’s intentions and takes matters into his own hands, engaging Yamm in combat and defeating him (cf. “you shall die like mortals” in Ps 82:7). Kothar-wa-Hasis, another god who favors Baal, speaks thus:
      I say to you, O Prince Baal, I declare O Rider on the clouds:
      Now your enemy, O Baal; now your enemy you will kill.
      Now you will destroy your adversaries.
      Take your eternal kingdom, your dominion forever and ever. . . .
      Drive Yamm (Sea) from his throne, Nahar (River) from his seat of dominion. . . .
      And the club swoops in the hands of Baal, like an eagle in his fingers
      It strikes the skull of Prince Yamm, between the eyes of Judge Nahar
      Yamm collapses, he falls to the earth; his joints tremble, his body is spent
      Baal draws and drinks Yamm, he finishes off Judge Nahar
      Astarte shouted Baal’s name:
      “Hail, Baal the Victorious! Hail, Rider on the Clouds!
      Yamm is dead! Baal shall reign!”
      Thom Stark: The Most Heiser

  15. Avatar
    twiskus  January 4, 2017

    Quoted from above:

    “Among the Dead Sea Scrolls were numerous copies of biblical books—some 200 of the scrolls contain books of the Bible (usually in fragmentary state). Every book that eventually came to be included in the Bible can be found among these scrolls—except for the book of Esther.”

    -When you state that every book of the Bible was found amount these scrolls (Hebrew Bible), does that include the Apocryphal books not found in the Protestant OT, or just what *is* found in the Protestant OT (39)?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2017

      I’m referring to the books of the Hebrew Bible, not the Aporcypha.

  16. Avatar
    abergjames  January 6, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Are there scholars/authors that you would recommend reading who explain the workings of the OT/Hebrew Bible in a style similar to yours–written simply for a wider audience?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2017

      I like two books in particular: Richard Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible; and Finkelstein and Silverman, The Bible Unearthed.

  17. Avatar
    Danny  January 6, 2017

    I’d be interested in hearing your take on Ecclesiasticus (Ben Sira), which might not be part of the current OT canon, certainly held special status among Jews for a long time and is quoted in the Talmud, on occasion at least.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2017

      It’s a very interesting book, a book of “Wisdom” much like the book of Proverbs, but unlike Proverbs it has a special interest in Israel as the people of God. (That’s a theme not in the Wisdom books of the OT — Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes)

  18. Avatar
    Eskil  January 7, 2017

    I think Catholics are making an interesting point with demonstrating that Church fathers knew and quoted deutercanonical books and apparently were influenced by them.


    Where did we got the deutercanonical books? Where did the Jews disappear that wrote and accepted these books?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2017

      We got them from Jewish authors after the writings of the Hebrew Bible were completed. The authors disappeared the same way virtually all authors from antiquity disappeared (simply left us no traces of themselves)!

  19. Avatar
    FrankJay71  January 10, 2017

    I’m curious about how the Samarita’s and they’re Pentateuch fit into the story. My understanding is that they’re version is almost word for word identical to the standard version. Wouldn’t that speak to it’s authorship and general acceptance long before the Babylonian captivity?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 10, 2017

      I”m afraid I don’t know much about the Samaritan Pentateuch!

  20. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 10, 2017

    The more I read about it, the more arbitrary and long and winding and non-inspired the book selection for the Bible appears. Makes one wonder how people become so certain that it is the “Word of God,”

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