to being possibly the books of Samuel and Kings and some of the Prophets, a part of the Psalter, and documents such as those excerpted in the book of Ezra, respecting edicts issued by Persian kings in favour of the Temple. But obviously nothing definite can be built upon a passage of this character.
The first traces of the idea current in modern times that the canon of the Old Testament was closed by Ezra are found in the 13th century A.D. From this time, as is clearly shown by the series of quotations in Ryle’s Canon of the Old Testament, p. 257 ff. (2nd ed., p. 269 ff.), the legend—for it is nothing better—grew, until finally, in the hands of Elias Levita (1538), and especially of Johannes Buxtorf (1665), it assumed the form that the “men of the Great Synagogue,”—a body the real existence of which is itself very doubtful, but which is affirmed in the Talmud to have “written” (!) the books of Ezekiel, the Minor Prophets, Daniel and Esther—with Ezra as president, first collected the books of the Old Testament into a single volume, restored the text, where necessary, from the best MSS., and divided the collection into three parts, the Law, the Prophets and the “Writings” (the Hagiographa). The reputation of Elias Levita and Buxtorf led to this view of Ezra’s activity being adopted by other scholars, and so it acquired general currency. But it rests upon no authority in antiquity whatever.
The statement just quoted, however, that in the Jewish canon the books of the Old Testament are divided into three parts, though the arrangement is wrongly referred to Ezra, is in itself both correct and important. “The Law, the Prophets and the Writings (i.e. the Hagiographa)” is the standing Jewish expression for the Old Testament; and in every ordinary Hebrew Bible the books are arranged accordingly in the following three divisions:—
1. The Tōrāh (or “Law”), corresponding to our “Pentateuch” (5 books).
2. The “Prophets,” consisting of eight books, divided into two groups:—
(a) The “Former Prophets”; Joshua, Judges, Samuel; Kings.
(b) The “Latter Prophets”; Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Minor Prophets (called by the Jews “the Twelve,” and counted by them as one book).
3. The “Writings,” also sometimes the “Sacred Writings,” i.e., as we call them, the “Hagiographa,” consisting of three groups, containing in all eleven books:—
(a) The poetical books, Psalms, Proverbs, Job.
(b) The five Megilloth (or “Rolls”)—grouped thus together in later times, on account of the custom which arose of reading them in the synagogues at five sacred seasons—Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther.
(c) The remaining books, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah (forming one book), Chronicles.1
There are thus, according to the Jewish computation, twenty-four “books” in the Hebrew canon. The threefold division of the canon just given is recognized in the Talmud, and followed in all Hebrew MSS., the only difference being that the books included in the Latter Prophets and in the Hagiographa are not always arranged in the same order. No book, however, belonging to one of these three divisions is ever, by the Jews, transferred to another. The expansion of the Talmudic twenty-four to the thirty-nine Old Testament books of the English Bible is effected by reckoning the Minor Prophets one by one, by separating Ezra from Nehemiah, and by subdividing the long books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles. The different order of the books in the English Bible is due to the fact that when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek between the 3rd and 1st centuries B.C., the Hebrew tripartite division was disregarded, and the books (including those now known as the “Apocrypha”) were grouped mostly by subjects, the historical books being placed first (Genesis—Esther), the poetical books next (Job—Song of Songs), and the prophetical books last (Isaiah—Malachi). Substantially the same order was followed in the Vulgate. The Reformers separated the books which had no Hebrew original (i.e. the Apocrypha) from the rest, and placed them at the end; the remaining books, as they stood in the Vulgate, were then in the order which they still retain in the English Bible.
The tripartite division of the Hebrew canon thus recognized by Jewish tradition can, however, be traced back far beyond the Talmud. The Proverbs of Jesus, the son of Sirach (c. 200 B.C.), which form now the apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus, were translated into Greek by the grandson of the author at about 130 B.C.; and in the preface prefixed by him to his translation he speaks of “the law, and the prophets, and the other books of our fathers,” and again of “the law, and the prophets, and the rest of the books,” expressions which point naturally to the same threefold division which was afterwards universally recognized by the Jews. The terms used, however, do not show that the Hagiographa was already completed, as we now have it; it would be entirely consistent with them, if, for instance, particular books, as Esther, or Daniel, or Ecclesiastes, were only added to the collection subsequently. Another allusion to the tripartite division is also no doubt to be found in the expression “the law, the prophets, and the psalms,” in Luke xxiv. 44. A collection of sacred books, including in particular the prophets, is also referred to in Dan. ix. 2 (R. V.), written about 166 B.C.
This threefold division of the Old Testament, it cannot reasonably be doubted, rests upon an historical basis. It represents three successive stages in the history of the collection. The Law was the first part to be definitely recognized as authoritative, or canonized; the “Prophets” (as defined above) were next accepted as canonical; the more miscellaneous collection of books comprised in the Hagiographa was recognized last. In the absence of all external evidence respecting the formation of the canon, we are driven to internal evidence in our endeavour to fix the dates at which these three collections were thus canonized. And internal evidence points to the conclusion that the Law could scarcely have been completed, and accepted formally, as a whole, as canonical before 444 B.C. (cf. Neh. viii.-x.); that the “Prophets” were completed and so recognized about 250 B.C., and the Hagiographa between about 150 and 100 B.C. (See further Ryle’s Canon of the Old Testament.)
Having thus fixed approximately the terminus ad quem at which the Old Testament was completed, we must now begin at the other end, and endeavour to sketch in outline the process by which it gradually reached its completed form. And here it will be found to be characteristic of nearly all the longer books of the Old Testament, and in some cases even of the shorter ones as well, that they were not completed by a single hand, but that they were gradually expanded, and reached their present form by a succession of stages.
Among the Hebrews, as among many other nations, the earliest beginnings of literature were in all probability poetical. At least the opening phrases of the song of Moses in Exodus xv.; the song of Deborah in Judges v.; the fragment from the “Book of the Wars of Yahweh,” in Numbers xxi. 14, 15; the war-ballad, celebrating an Israelitish victory, in Numbers xxi. 27-30; the extracts from the “Book of Jashar” (or “of the Upright,” no doubt a title of Israel) quoted in Joshua x. 12, 13 (“Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon,” &c.); in 2 Sam. i. (David’s elegy over Saul and Jonathan); and, very probably, in the Septuagint of 1 Kings viii. 13 [Sept. 53], as the source of the poetical fragment in vv. 12, 13, describing Solomon’s building of the Temple, show how great national occurrences and the deeds of ancient Israelitish heroes stimulated the national genius for poetry, and evoked lyric songs, suffused with religious feeling, by which their memory was perpetuated. The poetical descriptions of the character, or geographical position, of the various tribes, now grouped together as the Blessings of Jacob (Gen. xlix.) and Moses (Deut. xxxiii.), may be mentioned at the same time. These poems, which are older, and in most cases considerably older, than the narratives in which they are now embedded, if they were collected into books, must have been fairly numerous,
- The books of Samuel, Kings, Ezra and Nehemiah, and Chronicles, were by the Jews each treated (and written) as one book, and were not divided by them into two till the 16th century, through Christian influence.