July 13, 2024
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The Distinction Between Neviim and Ketuvim and Insights Into the Canon

It is time to address some Nach and canon-related issues. The Talmud (Baba Batra 14b) lists 19 Nach books: eight in the Neviim and 11 in the Ketuvim. (Once the Chumash is added, that gives a total of 24 books.) You will notice that the book of Ezra is listed on this list, but the book of Nechemiah is not. This is because these two books were collected together as one book at the time, so the listing for Ezra includes it.

What is the distinction between Neviim and Ketuvim? Why is the book of Joshua in the Neviim while the book of Ezra-Nechemiah is in the Ketuvim, when these seem to be the same type of work?

If you respond that they had different levels of inspiration and sanctity, this is a later idea, not found until the time of the early Rishonim. See Sid Z. Leiman, The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture, pp. 64-66. At the time of the Talmud, there was not any distinction between the Neviim and the Ketuvim in terms of levels of inspiration and sanctity.

A reasonable explanation for our different categories is as follows. (Of course, this is only a guess, we have no sources.) There was originally a distinction between books that reflect the history of the nation of Israel and the exhortations of their prophets versus other books like Tehillim. But at a certain point, probably between 518 B.C.E. and approximately 400 B.C.E., the Neviim section began to be treated as closed. Any book that came to be accepted thereafter was only able to enter the Ketuvim. The last specific date mentioned in the Neviim is the foutth year of Darius I (see Zech. 7:1). This was 518 B.C.E. So the Neviim were presumably open until at least that year. Leiman argues convincingly that the Neviim section must have been closed by approximately 400 B.C.E. If it were still open, the books of Ezra-Nechemiah and Chronicles, which date to around this time, would have been included within it.

Now we understand why there is no common thread among the Ketuvim. The section is a catch-all. The Ketuvim came to include all types of books once the Neviim were closed.

With regard to when the Ketuvim were closed, this is a much-debated issue. A widespread view is that the book of Daniel was one of the last books added to the canon and that it accurately describes events through the persecution of Antiochus IV in 164 B.C.E. Leiman believes that the canon was closed around this time. He also points to a passage at II Maccabees 2:14:15, which may allude to the closing of the canon by Judah Maccabee: “Judah…collected all the books that had been lost on account of the war…”

There is a section in the book of Ben Sira that perhaps sheds light on the development of the canon. Ben Sira is dated by most scholars to approximately 200 B.C.E. At the end of this book, there is a long section that includes mentions of Joshua, the Judges, Samuel, Nathan, David, Solomon, Jeroboam, Elijah, Hezekiah, Isaiah, Josiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Job, Trei Asar, Zerubavel and Nechemiah. Since Ben Sira seems to be going through the books of Tanach and its major figures (why else would Job and Trei Asar be mentioned!), we would have expected a mention here of Mordechai (or Esther) and Daniel. Yet there is none. Many scholars believe that this is evidence that the books of Daniel and Esther were not yet in Tanach in his time. (With regard to the book of Ezra, he mentions Nechemiah so that suffices, since these were one book in ancient times.)

With regard to passages such as Mishnah Yadayim 3:5, where some Sages of the second century C.E. argue about the status of Shir HaShirim and Kohelet, Leiman argues that they are merely arguing about the inspired status of books in a canon that was closed long before. Leiman distinguishes between inspiration and canon. A book can be in the canon, but that does not necessarily mean that it was viewed as being composed with ruach hakodesh. Whether Shir HaShirim and Kohelet were composed with ruach hakodesh is what is being debated by these second-century C.E. Sages. But all agreed that they were already in the canon.

It bears stressing that the truth is that we know nothing about the canonization process. Anything that anyone writes is merely conjecture. (And I highly doubt there was a meeting every few years or decades by some important committee where new additions were voted upon! Very likely, canonization was a gradual evolving process.) But at least I can tell you what the word “canon” means. It comes from a Greek word that means “measuring stick.” It is related to the English word “cane.”

On a different note, I apologize that I previously wrote about biblical “concordances” without explaining what a biblical concordance is, or where that odd term came from! I promise to discuss that in the future (when I figure it out!). Continuing to call these books “concordances” centuries later seems to be a bad marketing decision! From the title, no one can figure out what it is! All I know right now is that the root “concord” means “agree.”

Now I will address some other Nach and canon-related issues:

  1. 1. There is a famous statement by Josephus, writing around 100 C.E., that the Jews have 22 books in their canon. Based on this, many scholars had speculated that at the time of Josephus, two of our books were not yet canonized. But scholars eventually figured out, based on later statements by church fathers in Palestine (e.g., Origen and Jerome), that counting the books of Tanach as 22 in number was a common way of referring to them. In this enumeration, the book of Ruth was combined with the book of Judges, and the book of Lamentations was combined with the book of Jeremiah.
  2. 2. In the list of biblical books at Baba Batra 14b, the Book of Esther is called “Megillat Esther.” The other four books that we include in “Chamesh Megillot” volumes today do not have the word “megillah” prefaced to them. Please think about this as I will explain how this developed in a future article.
  3. 3. An interesting issue is the order that the 12 small Trei Asar books should be presented in. The Talmudic passage at Baba Batra 14b lists the Trei Asar as one book, but does not include an order for the 12 books within it.
  4. 4. Who is the last king mentioned by name in Tanach? Fortunately or unfortunately, there is more than one correct answer to this question. Nechemiah 12:22 mentions a king named “Daryavesh.” Most scholars interpret the reference as being to Darius II (423-404 B.C.E.), in which case he would be the last king mentioned by name in Tanach. But it is also possible that the reference is to Darius III (336-331 B.C.E.).

On the other hand, others (e.g., Daat Mikra commentary) take the position that Nechemiah 12:22 is referring to Darius I (522-486 B.C.E.). If so, the last Persian king mentioned in Tanach would be the Artachshasta of the time of Ezra and Nechemiah. This is Artaxerxes I. He reigned from 465-424 B.C.E. (He was the son of Xerxes/Achashverosh.)

A separate issue is who is the last king alluded to in Tanach but not mentioned by name? Daniel 11:4 clearly alludes to the sudden death of Alexander the Great and the division of his empire into four parts. Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C.E. Even later than this, most scholars believe that the book of Daniel, especially Chapters 9 and 11, alludes to Antiochus IV and his persecution of the Jews from 167 B.C.E. to 164 B.C.E. This all deserves a separate column.

By Mitchell First

 Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected]. Because his name is “First,” he is fascinated with dating, chronology and putting things in order.

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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