The Masoretic Text is the authoritative Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh. It defines the books of the Jewish canon, and also the precise letter-text of these biblical books, with their vocalization and accentuation.
The oldest extant manuscripts of the Masoretic Text date from approximately the 9th century CE, and the Aleppo Codex (once the oldest complete copy of the Masoretic Text, but now missing its Torah section) dates from the 10th century.
The name Tanakh (Hebrew: תנ"ך) reflects the threefold division of the Hebrew Scriptures, Torah ("Teaching"), Nevi'im ("Prophets") and Ketuvim ("Writings").
The Torah (תּוֹרָה) is also known as the "Five Books of Moses" or the Pentateuch, meaning "five scroll-cases".
The Hebrew names of the books are derived from the first words in the respective texts. The Torah consists of the following five books:
- Genesis, Beresheeth (בראשית)
- Exodus, Shemot (שמות)
- Leviticus, Vayikra (ויקרא)
- Numbers, Bamidbar (במדבר)
- Deuteronomy, Devarim (דברים)
The first eleven chapters of Genesis provide accounts of the creation (or ordering) of the world and the history of God's early relationship with humanity. The remaining thirty-nine chapters of Genesis provide an account of God's covenant with the Biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (also called Israel) and Jacob's children, the "Children of Israel", especially Joseph. It tells of how God commanded Abraham to leave his family and home in the city of Ur, eventually to settle in the land of Canaan, and how the Children of Israel later moved to Egypt. The remaining four books of the Torah tell the story of Moses, who lived hundreds of years after the patriarchs. He leads the Children of Israel from slavery in Ancient Egypt to the renewal of their covenant with God at Mount Sinai and their wanderings in the desert until a new generation was ready to enter the land of Canaan. The Torah ends with the death of Moses.
The Torah contains the commandments of God, revealed at Mount Sinai (although there is some debate among traditional scholars as to whether these were all written down at one time, or over a period of time during the 40 years of the wanderings in the desert, while several modern Jewish movements reject the idea of a literal revelation, and critical scholars believe that many of these laws developed later in Jewish history). These commandments provide the basis for Jewish religious law. Tradition states that there are 613 commandments (taryag mitzvot).
Nevi'im (Hebrew: נְבִיאִים, translit. Nəḇî'îm, "Prophets") is the second main division of the Tanakh, between the Torah and Ketuvim. It contains two sub-groups, the Former Prophets (Nevi'im Rishonim נביאים ראשונים, the narrative books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) and the Latter Prophets (Nevi'im Aharonim נביאים אחרונים, the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel and the Twelve Minor Prophets).
The Nevi'im tell the story of the rise of the Hebrew monarchy and its division into two kingdoms, ancient Israel and Judah, focusing on conflicts between the Israelites and other nations, and conflicts among Israelites, specifically, struggles between believers in "the LORD God" and believers in foreign gods, and the criticism of unethical and unjust behaviour of Israelite elites and rulers; in which prophets played a crucial and leading role. It ends with the conquest of the Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians followed by the conquest of the Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Former Prophets are the books Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. They contain narratives that begin immediately after the death of Moses with the divine appointment of Joshua as his successor, who then leads the people of Israel into the Promised Land, and end with the release from imprisonment of the last king of Judah. Treating Samuel and Kings as single books, they cover:
- Joshua's conquest of the land of Canaan (in the Book of Joshua),
- the struggle of the people to possess the land (in the Book of Judges),
- the people's request to God to give them a king so that they can occupy the land in the face of their enemies (in the Books of Samuel)
- the possession of the land under the divinely appointed kings of the House of David, ending in conquest and foreign exile (Books of Kings)
The Latter Prophets are divided into two groups, the "major" prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets, collected into a single book. The collection is broken up to form twelve individual books in the Christian Old Testament, one for each of the prophets:
- Hosea, Hoshea (הושע)
- Joel, Yoel (יואל)
- Amos, Amos (עמוס)
- Obadiah, Ovadyah (עבדיה)
- Jonah, Yonah (יונה)
- Micah, Mikhah (מיכה)
- Nahum, Nahum (נחום)
- Habakkuk, Havakuk (חבקוק)
- Zephaniah, Tsefanya (צפניה)
- Haggai, Khagay (חגי)
- Zechariah, Zekharyah (זכריה)
- Malachi, Malakhi (מלאכי)
Ketuvim or Kəṯûḇîm (in Biblical Hebrew: כְּתוּבִים "writings") is the third and final section of the Tanakh. The Ketuvim are believed to have been written under the Ruach HaKodesh (the Holy Spirit) but with one level less authority than that of prophecy.
The poetic books
In Masoretic manuscripts (and some printed editions), Psalms, Proverbs and Job are presented in a special two-column form emphasizing the parallel stichs in the verses, which are a function of their poetry. Collectively, these three books are known as Sifrei Emet (an acronym of the titles in Hebrew, איוב, משלי, תהלים yields Emet אמ"ת, which is also the Hebrew for "truth").
These three books are also the only ones in Tanakh with a special system of cantillation notes that are designed to emphasize parallel stichs within verses. However, the beginning and end of the book of Job are in the normal prose system.
The five scrolls (Hamesh Megillot)
The five relatively short books of Song of Songs, Book of Ruth, the Book of Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Book of Esther are collectively known as the Hamesh Megillot (Five Megillot). These are the latest books collected and designated as "authoritative" in the Jewish canon even though they were not complete until the 2nd century CE.
Besides the three poetic books and the five scrolls, the remaining books in Ketuvim are Daniel, Ezra–Nehemiah and Chronicles. Although there is no formal grouping for these books in the Jewish tradition, they nevertheless share a number of distinguishing characteristics:
- Their narratives all openly describe relatively late events (i.e., the Babylonian captivity and the subsequent restoration of Zion).
- The Talmudic tradition ascribes late authorship to all of them.
- Two of them (Daniel and Ezra) are the only books in the Tanakh with significant portions in Aramaic.
Order of the books
The following list presents the books of Ketuvim in the order they appear in most printed editions. It also divides them into three subgroups based on the distinctiveness of Sifrei Emet and Hamesh Megillot.
The Three Poetic Books (Sifrei Emet)
- Tehillim (Psalms) תְהִלִּים
- Mishlei (Book of Proverbs) מִשְלֵי
- Iyyôbh (Book of Job) אִיּוֹב
The Five Megillot (Hamesh Megillot)
- Shīr Hashshīrīm (Song of Songs) or (Song of Solomon) שִׁיר הַשׁשִׁירִים (Passover)
- Rūth (Book of Ruth) רוּת (Shābhû‘ôth)
- Eikhah (Lamentations) איכה (Ninth of Av) [Also called Kinnot in Hebrew.]
- Qōheleth (Ecclesiastes) קהלת (Sukkôth)
- Estēr (Book of Esther) אֶסְתֵר (Pûrîm)
- Dānî’ēl (Book of Daniel) דָּנִיֵּאל
- ‘Ezrā (Book of Ezra–Book of Nehemiah) עזרא
- Divrei ha-Yamim (Chronicles) דברי הימים
The Jewish textual tradition never finalized the order of the books in Ketuvim. The Babylonian Talmud (Bava Batra 14b–15a) gives their order as Ruth, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations of Jeremiah, Daniel, Scroll of Esther, Ezra, Chronicles.
In Tiberian Masoretic codices, including the Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex, and often in old Spanish manuscripts as well, the order is Chronicles, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations of Jeremiah, Esther, Daniel, Ezra.
The Ketuvim is the last of the three portions of the Tanakh to have been accepted as biblical canon. While the Torah may have been considered canon by Israel as early as the 5th century BCE and the Former and Latter Prophets were canonized by the 2nd century BCE, the Ketuvim was not a fixed canon until the 2nd century of the Common Era.
Evidence suggests, however, that the people of Israel were adding what would become the Ketuvim to their holy literature shortly after the canonization of the prophets. As early as 132 BCE references suggest that the Ketuvim was starting to take shape, although it lacked a formal title. References in the four Gospels as well as other books of the New Testament indicate that many of these texts were both commonly known and counted as having some degree of religious authority early in the 1st century CE.
Many scholars believe that the limits of the Ketuvim as canonized scripture were determined by the Council of Jamnia c. 90 CE. Against Apion, the writing of Josephus in 95 CE, treated the text of the Hebrew Bible as a closed canon to which "... no one has ventured either to add, or to remove, or to alter a syllable..." For a long time following this date the divine inspiration of Esther, the Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes was often under scrutiny.
The Tanakh was mainly written in biblical Hebrew, with some small portions (Ezra 4:8–6:18 and 7:12–26, Jeremiah 10:11, Daniel 2:4–7:28) written in biblical Aramaic, a sister language which became the lingua franca for much of the Semitic world.