EXCERPT: Discovering Second Temple Literature


The following is an excerpt from Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories That Shaped Early Judaism by Malka Z. Simkovich (November 2018). The book will be launched at Sixth Street Community Synagogue tomorrow, November 29, at 7:00 p.m. Register for the event here.


From Chapter 11: The Codified Bible

In the Second Temple period, documents were copied by hand, either onto sheets of parchment made of animal hide or onto papyri. Papyri were made from the papyrus plants that grew in abundance alongside the banks of the Nile River. Using papyri was a practical and inexpensive way to record documents and preserve them in the dry desert climate of Egypt. Animal hide, on the other hand, was a more durable material, but since it had to be cured and treated before a scribe could write a text on it and roll it easily into a scroll, it was a more expensive alternative. Papyri tended to be used for day-to-day documents, while scriptural texts were usually copied onto scrolls in order to ensure their endurance.

Although Jews in the Second Temple period held certain texts to be scriptural, they did not assemble all of their sacred writing into a canon. As we noted at the end of chapter 3, part of the reason for this is that sacred texts were generally written on scrolls.1 Given the expense of purchasing even a single scroll, we can assume that most Jews living in the Second Temple period were not in possession of all the scrolls that they considered to be scriptural.2 They would have owned a few scrolls at the most, and, if their finances allowed, would have added to their collection of scrolls over time. Since different sections of the Bible were usually written on separate scrolls, there was a degree of fluidity regarding how Jews collected sacred texts. An owner of two scrolls might have placed Judges, a text that would come to be regarded as canonical, on a shelf next to Jubilees, a document that would later be excluded from the canon, and this owner might have considered both scrolls to be equally sacred.

All of this changed in the early Rabbinic period, when scribes began to copy the Jews’ scriptural texts into codices. In order to determine which documents would be included in a biblical codex, the Rabbinic community had to decide precisely which documents were considered scriptural. This decision in turn helped to canonize the Hebrew Bible. Once the Jewish scriptures were bound into a single book, they were read in light of one another, and those books that had been excluded from the collection were no longer read in conversation with the codified scriptures. The Hebrew Bible was thus solidified into a cohesive collection, and excluded books came to be viewed as marginal to normative Judaism, rather than as representative of mainstream Jewish thought.

The word “canon” is derived from the Greek word kanon, which refers to a straight bar the Greeks used to measure objects. The word may be connected to the Greek word kanna, “reed,” which shares a cognate with its Hebrew counterpart, kaneh. The etymological connection between kanon and kanna may be due to the fact that reeds were once used as measuring tools. Just as the length of one of these reeds was considered to be a complete measurement, a collection of texts within a canon was considered to be complete and required no supplement.

This chapter examines three collections of the Bible that Jews used in the late Second Temple period: the Hebrew Bible, written in Hebrew; the Septuagint, written in Greek; and the Peshitta, written in the Aramaic dialect of Syriac.

The Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew Bible is known as the TANAKH in Hebrew, which is an acronym that refers to its three main sections: the Torah, the Nevi’im, and the Kethuvim. The Torah, its first section, contains the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Genesis begins with the story of the creation of the universe and then segues into a brief account of human history from Adam to Abraham. From the time that it introduces the reader to Abraham, the Torah homes in on the origins of the Israelite people. It closes with Moses’ death, on the cusp of the Israelites’ entry into the Land of Israel.



The second section of the Hebrew Bible, known as Nevi’im, or Prophets, consists of the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and a collection of prophetic books called the Twelve Minor Prophets. Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings recount Israelite history from the people’s entry into the Land of Israel through the Babylonians’ destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the consequent Babylonian exile. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets consist of prophetic speeches and oracles.

These books cover a period of time when the Israelites were ruled by judges and then by kings. As we mentioned in chapter 4, the Israelite monarchy split into two kingdoms following the reign of Solomon: the Northern Kingdom, called Israel, and the Southern Kingdom, called Judea. In 722 BCE, the Assyrian Empire invaded Israel and exiled the Northern Kingdom. Soon thereafter the Assyrian Empire began to decline, and the Babylonian Empire rose to power. In 587–586 BCE the Babylonians invaded Judea, destroyed the Jerusalem Temple, and exiled many of Judea’s inhabitants to Babylonia.

The last accounts in the historical books of the Prophets section of the TANAKH close with the beginning of Babylonian exile. Scholars believe, however, that some of the prophecies that appear in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets were actually composed during the Babylonian exile and in the decades following the Judeans’ return to Judea under the Persian king Cyrus. These years are known as the Exilic and post-Exilic periods.

The final section of the Hebrew Bible, Kethuvim, or Writings, comprises Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles. These books vary in genre, place of composition, date of composition, and, in the case of Aramaic passages in Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, even in language, but most are dated to the Exilic or post-Exilic periods.

Mishnaic discussions regarding whether to include or exclude certain books from the canon suggest that, even in 200 CE, the question of precisely which books were “in” and which were “out” remained unsettled, particularly when it came to the Writings section of the TANAKH. The Mishnah recalls, for example, that some Rabbis were concerned that the Song of Songs was too erotic to be canonized, but Rabbi Akiva insisted that while other books are holy, this book is the “Holy of Holies.”3 Rabbi Akiva’s argument is also clever wordplay: He matched the superlative title “Song of Songs” with the inner sanctum of the Temple, the Holy of Holies. By doing so, Rabbi Akiva correlated holy text with holy space, a strategy for which the Rabbis would become renowned. Rabbi Akiva’s argument was accepted, and the Song of Songs was preserved in the TANAKH’s
Writings section.

Discussions regarding the biblical canon and its authors are preserved in the Talmud. The first list of biblical books is preserved in the talmudic tractate of Bava Batra:

Who wrote the Scriptures? Moses wrote his book, and the portion of Balaam and Job. Joshua wrote his book and [the last] eight verses of the Torah. Samuel wrote his book and the books of Judges and Ruth. David wrote the Book of Psalms, with the help of the elders Adam, Melchizedek, Abraham, Moses, Heman, Yedutun, Asaph, and the three sons of Korah. Jeremiah wrote his book, the book of Kings, and Lamentations. Hezekiah and his assistants wrote Isaiah, Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. The men of the Great Assembly wrote Ezekiel, the Twelve Minor Prophets, Daniel, and Esther. Ezra wrote the book that bears his name, and the genealogies of Chronicles up to his own time.4

This passage mentions the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible, and no others. That the passage opens with the question “Who wrote the Scriptures?” rather than “What are the Scriptures?” implies that this list was not meant to establish the biblical canon but to clarify its authors. By the time this list was written down, the Rabbinic community, or at least the community in which the Rabbinic author of this passage lived, presumed the existence of a widely accepted biblical canon.

Today, the standard text of the Hebrew Bible is based on what is called the Masoretic text, which is credited as being the “authentic” version of the Hebrew Bible. This text is based on an early eleventh-century CE manuscript called the Leningrad Codex, which is the oldest complete version of the Hebrew Bible. An older copy of the Masoretic text, the Aleppo Codex, dated to the tenth century, survives as well, but no longer in complete form.

The Masoretic text is not the only version of the Bible that the Jews used in ancient times. Many of the biblical scrolls preserved at Qumran, for instance, differ from the Masoretic text, which raises the question of whether the Masoretic text should be amended by using biblical texts preserved at Qumran. This issue is further complicated because there was not one single version of the Bible preserved at Qumran, but several. Among these versions, there is evidence for the existence of a biblical version that was extremely close to what would later become the Masoretic text. These issues will be addressed more fully in the coming decades, as scholars conduct comparative work between the biblical texts from Qumran and the Masoretic text.


  1. Scholars who disagree regarding when the scriptures were canonized also disagree about why they were canonized. Philip Davies, for instance, suggests that the process began in the early Second Temple period, and, by the Hasmonean period, a canon was essentially in place, with occasional minor variations depending on community. According to Marc Brettler, however, the canonization of the Hebrew Bible happened in the late Second Temple period in response to the various “Judaisms” being practiced in the Greco-Roman world. See Davies, Scribes and Schools, 70–72. Cf. Halbertal, People of the Book; Leiman, Canonization of Hebrew Literature; Haran, “Book-Scrolls,” 111–22; Brettler, How to Read the Bible.
  2. The list of the twenty-four books in the Hebrew Bible appears in b. B. Bat. 14b–15a.
  3. M. Yad. 3:5.
  4. M. B. Bat. 14b-15a.



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