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Many Jewish websites, (Aish, Jewish History, Ou), state that the the Men of the Great Assembly finalized the contents of Tanach in the early Second Temple Period. No source is brought to support this statement in any of the sites I have perused.

Wikipedia, and Jewish Virtual Library, on the other hand, make no claim that these Sages sealed the Biblical Canon, only that they contributed to it significantly. They bring sources from the Talmud.

A mishnah in Yadayim 3:6 showcases an argument about the ritual status of certain books. This could imply that the last Sanhedrin in Yavneh was still deliberating on certain books' place in Tanakh, though it is not conclusive.

What is the source for the claim that the Men of the Great Assembly Canonized Tanach? I am looking for any source that supports the claim with evidence, or strong evidence found by the Mi Yodeya community. The earlier the better.

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    Bava Basra 14b implies that as that is the latest who wrote any of the books of neviim. Another implication is based on the inclusion of Esther (Purim) but not the Chashmonaim (Chanuka). Apr 27, 2014 at 16:44
  • @sabbahillel okay, but BB is just listing the order. You could say that it is the order that the books were compiled in once finalized, and Chronicles happened to be the last book. Re Hasmoneans, I think that's more compelling, especially since we certainly think highly of the event,but you're saying itwasjust too late to add. Anecdotally, I had heard that the Hasmonenans were excluded because they did not return the kingship to the line of Judah, having gained independence, meaning that it wasn't a matter of chronology, but rather of politics.
    – Baby Seal
    Apr 27, 2014 at 17:18
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    The Great Assembly wrote Tanach: that is, they're the latest people listed (BB 14–15) as writing books of Tanach.
    – msh210
    Apr 28, 2014 at 6:31
  • @msh210 definitely, but when was that decided? By them? By Elazar ben Azarya's Sanhedrin?
    – Baby Seal
    Apr 28, 2014 at 9:03

8 Answers 8

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Actually, there's no source for this story at all, save a desire to believe that the ordering of books within Tanakh was deliberate, rather than simply retroactive. The gemara (Bava Batra 15a-b) speaks of the order in which the books appear and of their composition, while the mishna (Yadayim 3:6) possibly alludes to a debate that concerned the scriptural status of Shir haShirim and Qohelet. Elsewhere, intimations exist that concern the potential illegitimacy of Ezekiel as a scriptural text (Shabbat 13b), as well as the potential legitimacy of Ben Sirakh and Megillat Taanit.

The first person to suppose that a council once existed at which the Tanakh was finalised was Heinrich Graetz in his 1871 "Der alttestamentliche Kanon und sein Abschluss". This theory may have some merit or it may not; either way, it was a fabrication, invented to make sense of the evidence that does exist.

The supposition that the Tanakh was finalised several centuries earlier by the Anshei Kenesset haGedolah also makes sense - but only if you choose to believe that the Tanakh was already in its final form at the time of the Mishna's composition. Since the Mishna never says that it was, whether or not you believe it to have been is entirely up to you.

In order to better appreciate why it's not strange that it wouldn't be, consider that the Tanakh did not appear in codex form (in Hebrew, that is) until the 10th century. During the period of which we are speaking, the "Tanakh" was just a collection of individual scrolls. Knowing what was "in" the Tanakh and what was not meant knowing which of those scrolls were scripturally authoritative and which were not.

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    By "codex form" you mean written all together or bound book-style? If the latter, I'm not sure why that is significant; if the former, what is your evidence? Bavli Bava Batra 13b and Megilla 19a-b imply otherwise.
    – Double AA
    Apr 29, 2014 at 2:40
  • related judaism.stackexchange.com/q/26477/759
    – Double AA
    Apr 29, 2014 at 2:43
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    @DoubleAA - My mistake! I retract that final paragraph, and shall have to re-evaluate what I had been led to believe... I'd not seen those sugyas before, and spoke without knowing.
    – Shimon bM
    May 7, 2014 at 4:58
  • Related: judaism.stackexchange.com/a/105469/7303 Jul 11, 2019 at 19:07
  • Downvoted for presuming the intentions of the people you disagree with, rather than just stating the facts
    – Rabbi Kaii
    10 hours ago
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Rabbi Yehudah Hachassid in Sefer Chassidim, siman 1016 seems to say this:

"...ומ"ש הלא הם כתובים על דברי חוזה במדרש עידו אנשי כנסת הגדולה אמרו מה שהוצרכו לדרוש כבר ואין נביא רשאי לחדש דבר על עשרים וארבעה ספרים לא מלאך ולא אליהו..."

"...and that which is written "are recorded in the story of the prophet Iddo" the Men of the Great Assembly have already said what was needed to be recorded and no prophet is allowed to add anything to the twenty-four books, not an angel or Eliyahu..."

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Both Ben Sira writing in the 2nd C. BCE and Josephus writing in the first century CE (Contra Apion) identify 22 books of the biblical canon. These conform to the 24 books in Tanakh we know today with Ruth appended to Judges and Eicha to Jeremiah. Josephus lists these books explicitly by name (Contra Apion).

If you accept the argument that the fact that the number of books in Tanach remained the same from Ben Sira to Josephus means that the canon was closed. And, working with the assumption that the men of the great assembly were the religious leaders of the Jewish people at or before the time of Ben Sira it would stand to reason that they were the ones responsible for canonization.

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  • Where does Ben Sira write this
    – Double AA
    May 14 at 15:49
  • chs. 44-50 either directly or indirectly May 14 at 19:25
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In order to speak of a closed canon, all the books must have been written. As Daniel is the last book written, at around the time of the Hasmonians, the canon could not have been closed before 164BCE.

However, there is debate whether canonization is an act (this is how we commonly think of it – even in the scholarly world) or a process.

If it's a process, then perhaps ‫תורה‬ is completed as Bnei Yisrael enter Israel and ‫Neviim‬ is completed at the time of ‫ומלאכי‬ , ‫זכריה‬ , ‫חגי‬ . But what about the time between when the books are written and when they are canonized? For a while, they may be just books, not necessarily biblical. This intermediate stage may explain why there are variant texts (e.g. in Qumran). Anything not included in ‫Neviim that is included in Tanach has only one place left to be canonized (assuming ‫Neviim is closed before Ketuvim. Ester, Ezra, and Chronicles‬ have nowhere else to go – maybe ‫Ketuvim is just a catch-all for the leftovers.

Most scholars believe that the canon is closed in ‫יבנה‬ (Jamnia, circa 200 CE), where there are still discussions about ‫ידים‬ ‫טומאת‬ and ‫ספרים‬ ‫גניזת‬ .

Anshei Knesset haGedolah is responsible for everything after the ‫ספר‬ leaves the author’s hand according to Chazal. The issue of ‫ידים‬ ‫טומאת‬ is that if ‫ידים‬ ‫טומאת‬ is equated with being part of canon, then they are still arguing up until the time of ‫שמואל‬ (see ‫ז‬ - ‫ו‬ ‫דף‬ ‫מגילה‬ ) (circa 200 CE)

Quotes from Notes of Yeshiva University's Intro to Bible class. Content based on Dr Shnayer Leiman's "The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture"

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  • This is more of a super-long comment than an answer.
    – Shmuel
    Apr 29, 2014 at 5:28
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    In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim (BC 606), Daniel and his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were among the young Jewish nobility carried off to Babylon. So Daniel was written long time before 164BCE. If Daniel is the last book written, it is possible for Tanakh to be canonized by fifth century BCE and afterwards.
    – ben
    Apr 29, 2014 at 17:35
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    @ben You assume Daniel wrote the whole book of Daniel that we have.
    – Double AA
    Apr 29, 2014 at 17:40
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The answer isn't a single source but a combination of multiple sources.

First, the Talmud in Bava Basra 14b-15a lists the authors and editors of each book of Tanach. The Anshei Kneses HaGedolah are the latest-in-time group to participate in writing/editing any sefer in Tanach.

Second, Ben Sira's grandson--in his introduction to Sefer Ben Sira--refers to Torah, Neviim, and "others" as three categories of scripture. This implies that at least the first two categories were already fixed as of the middle of the Second Temple and that there was a distinct--albeit unnamed--third category.

Third, Josephus--writing at the end of the Second Temple period in Contra Apion 1:8--writes as point of pride that the Jewish books are limited to those believed to be divine and that they trace Jewish history until the reign of Artaxerxes, the time when the last writers lived. This is the early part of the Second Temple era, same time as the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah lived. (Although Josephus states there are 22 books, it seems clear that he is combining some of the non-historical books--perhaps Shir Hashirim/Koheles/Mishlei--becomes he says explicitly that there are 13 post-Moses historical books, which is the same number we have). Josephus is clearly describing what we would call a Canon.

In summary, we have a source that the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah participated in the writing/editing of some of the later books of Tanach. We have an indication from the middle of the Second Temple Era that the category of Neviim was already fixed. And we have Josephus describing a canon that was last added to--at least with respect to historical works--at the time of the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah.

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I would say it happened during the time of Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel, seeing as all (or at least most of) the disputes concerning which books defile the hands occur then. (Although these arguments seem to persist until much later, notably regarding Esther, it is safe to assume that at that point defiling hands was regarded as a technical issue rather than a symbolic discussion of which books are part of Tanach.)

In addition, the debate over whether or not to hide Sefer Yechezkel (which, at least in my understanding, could not have been considered after the canonization of Tanach) occurred in the presence of Chananya ben Chizkiya, the man whose attic hosted the famous gathering where Beis Shammai outnumbered Beis Hillel. This, perhaps, hints at a “council” of sorts which set out to unify Pharisee Judaism.

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  • Welcome to MiYodeya and thanks for this first answer. Since MY is different from other sites you might be used to, see here for a guide which might help understand the site. Great to have you learn with us!
    – mbloch
    Sep 11, 2023 at 3:08
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I am not sure whether this is true. But I saw in wiki.answers.com site that "The Tanakh canon was sealed by the Sanhedrin in the time of Ezra. This Sanhedrin, instead of the usual 70 members maximum, was enhanced and expanded to contain 120 sages, so that all of the greatest scholars could take part and its decisions would not be challenged. Some of the members included: Mordecai, Ezra, Nehemiah, Zerubavel, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Chananiah, Ishmael, Azariah, and Daniel. It was this Sanhedrin, known as the Men of the Great Assembly, who declared that no new books would ever be added to the Tanakh. This took place around 340 BCE."

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  • Welcome welcome! Awesome, it definitely seems like there's a consensus about this. I appreciate you sharing. I also appreciate that, given your reputation level, you can't comment.
    – Baby Seal
    Apr 29, 2014 at 1:10
  • But I went in to this question with website sources that say the same thing, albeit with less detail. I'm looking for something that backs up these statements with evidence. If you could add that in to your answer, it would improve it alot.
    – Baby Seal
    Apr 29, 2014 at 1:13
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Professor Moshe Halbertal in People of the Book (Harvard University Press, 1997, p.16) states:

the canon seems to have been established during the Second Temple era, apparently during the late Persian or early Hellenistic period, perhaps as ealry as 150 B.C.(E.)

The author believes that the process of canonization was 'fluid' through 90 C.E. when the sages of Yavneh argued about the place of certain books (ibid). He further notes that the text of the Dead Sea Scrolls matches to a high degree the current canon's text. The author is implicit in his endorsement of Dr. Shnayer Leiman's position that there is a difference between books which are divinely inspired (and hence defile the hands) vs. not necessarily being divinely inspired, but still within the canon. (Cf The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture, Sid Z. Leiman, The Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1976).

All of this is in contrast to Professor Shaye J.D. Cohen From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (Westminster John Knox Press, 2014 ch.6) who disputes that a true concept existed until there was a need for it due to Christianity's publishing of works which needed to then be deemed non-canonical (in this he is largely in agreement with Professor Lawrence Schiffman, Who is a Jew). To support this contention he notes that, writing circa 66 C.E. Josephus does not distinguish between canonical and non-canonical (Jewish) books (p.175)

To return to the OP's question, none of these authors cites a direct source but rather makes inferences from historical evidence.

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