The evidence for a temple collection of scripture is twofold, or, at least, I plan to explore two types of evidence. In this post we will look at ancient testimonia to a temple collection, or to a collection that many scholars associate with the Jerusalem temple. In the next post, we will explore the second line of evidence, having to do with the textual analysis of ancient biblical scrolls (see Emanuel Tov).
I'll say now that the evidence makes it probable that the temple housed a collection of scripture, but it is hard (impossible) to know the exact contents of this collection, and it seems unlikely that it contained precisely the Jewish canonical books, no more and no less (though some scholars have suggested this, as we will see).
The Hebrew Bible itself attests that some authoritative and sacred documents were stored in a sanctuary, whether the ark of the covenant, or the tabernacle, or the temple (e.g. Exod 40:20; Deut 31:24-26; 2Kings 22:8). There are also parallels to ANE and Greco-Roman societies, in which maintaining a collection of sacred works within a temple was pretty common (see van der Toorn, pp. 236-40).
Various other ancient sources also speak of or allude to a collection of scripture in the temple. An oft-cited passage comes from the deuterocanonical book 2Maccabees:
The same things are reported in the records and in the memoirs of Nehemiah, and also that he founded a library and collected the books about the kings and prophets, and the writings of David, and letters of kings about votive offerings. In the same way Judas also collected all the books that had been lost on account of the war which had come upon us, and they are in our possession. (2Macc 2:13-14)This text probably dates to the latter half of the second century BCE (see Schwartz, pp. 11-15). On this passage, Davies says:
This statement probably means that in the author's day there existed in Jerusalem a library of books which was thought to have been there since the time of Nehemiah, the contents of which correspond very well with what might have been the 'canon' of the day. (p. 87)And, later in the same book:
We should of course assume that there had previously been collections of scrolls in the temple, where the composition, copying, and editing also took place. That library, presumably, was destroyed. But now, whatever might have been the collection of books previously, a decision was needed about what books to include. What were the writings sacred to Judaism? Which were authoritative and holy? (p. 178)Davies is hinting here at an idea not too uncommon in scholarship on the canon, viz., that the collection of scripture in the temple bore a close relation to what became the scriptural canon of Judaism. This idea has enjoyed a long history in scholarship, going back at least to Johann Gottfried Eichhorn's Einleitung in das Alte Testament (vol. 1: 1780), as Stephen Chapman has recently reminded us (in his contribution here, pp. 659-67). This same idea played an important role in Moses Stuart's history of the canon in 1845 (sec. 8, pp. 171-88): "We can have no doubt, therefore, that each and every part of the Jewish Scriptures was deposited in the synagogues respectively, and of course in the temple" (p. 184). Stuart goes on to argue that only canonical books could enter the temple collection.
More-or-less the same position appears more recently in Roger Beckwith's major work on the canon (pp. 80-86; cf. also Stone, p. 86). Beckwith (pp. 81-82) cites evidence showing that it was customary in the ancient world and in the Hebrew Bible to deposit important documents at a shrine. For the Bible references, see Exod 25:16, 21; 40:20; Deut 10:1-5; 31:24-26; Josh 24:26; 1Sam 10:25; 1Kings 8:6-9; 2Chron 5:7-10; 2Kings 22:8; 23:2, 24; 2Chron 34:15, 30. Beckwith feels justified in making the following statements.
[...] and it [= the suitability of using holy books in holy spaces] was recognized by the Pharisees and Sadducees, in that they admitted no books but the Scriptures and items like the priestly and Levitical genealogies into the Jerusalem Temple. (p. 81)
Certainly, uncanonical books would not normally be brought into the Temple, which was the place for laying up holy books. (p. 85)
The introduction of a book into the Temple collection would have been an occasion of great deliberation and solemnity, and an event which could hardly be either anticipated or reversed. (p. 86)I have not omitted Beckwith's citations for these assertions; he does not provide any. The conjectural nature of his discussion should be apparent and is really no surprise to anyone who has worked closely with his book (see, e.g., here and here).
There are some other ancient statements regarding scriptures stored in the temple, but not many, and they're not all that helpful.
- Josephus also has some references to scriptures being housed in the temple, mostly the Pentateuch (Ant. 3.38; 4.302-4; War 7.150), but also the Book of Joshua (Ant. 5.61). (However, see Tov, p. 9 n. 35.) [See also Life 418, mentioning "sacred books," but were these from the temple?]
- Some rabbinic sources talk about
- reading liturgically the Torah in the temple (m. Yoma 7.1; Sota 7.7-8)
- a Torah scroll called the sefer ha-'azarah (alternatively: "Book of Ezra") kept in the Temple (m. Kelim 15.6; m. Moed Qatan 3.4; etc.; see Tov, p. 9)
- keeping the high priest awake the night before Yom Kippur by reading to him from Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Daniel, Ezra, and Chronicles (m. Yoma 1.6-7; t. Yoma 1.9; y. Yoma 1.6)
- Torah scrolls being kept in the Temple and used for the purpose of correcting other scrolls (e.g. Sifrei Deuteronomy 356; see Talmon's article)
Van der Toorn's discussion (pp. 236-47) presents a reasonable alternative.
"Though the founding of the library by Nehemiah may belong to the realm of legend, the library's existence in Jerusalem seems assured." (based on 2Macc 2:13-14; p. 238)
"We have no evidence about the acquisition policy of the Jerusalem library." (p. 240)Van der Toorn then surveys the ANE evidence for library acquisition policies, generally finding a liberal policy. He then turns his attention to Qumran before concluding:
"It is theoretically possible that the temple library of Jerusalem was smaller than the library of Qumran. This, however, seems highly unlikely. The authors of the letter quoted in 2 Macc. 2:13-15 assume that the Jerusalem library has various works not available to the Jews in Alexandria. Ben Sira was available at Qumran and Alexandria; it must have been present in the Jerusalem library as well. The fact that it was not included in the Hebrew Bible shows that there is no one-to-one correspondence between the Masoretic canon and the holding of the temple library in Jerusalem." (p. 242)Of course, we don't really know that the temple contained a copy of Ben Sira, but it well might have.
On the all-important passage from 2Macc 2:13-14, Lim warns us:
There is no mention of Judas establishing a library. To read the construction of a Maccabean library into this verse is to overload the comparative sense of the adverb ["likewise"]. In fact, the recovered books are not in a library but "in our possession" or "among us" (παρ' ἡμῖν). The plural subject of this phrase most naturally refers to the authors of the letter, who are inclusively the Jerusalemite and Judean Jews, the elders of Israel and Judas. (p. 116)
In sum, the adverb in v. 14 ("in the same way") should not be pressed beyond what it can bear. The comparison should be understood in a general sense. Judas did not collect the same kinds of books, nor did he found a library like Nehemiah. What he seemed to have done was, like Nehemiah, to collect books. The books that he gathered were damaged during the war [cf. 1Macc 1:56-57], and his reassembling of them formed part of the restoration of Jewish heritage. They were now back among the Judeans. (p. 117)I also note that 2Macc 2:13-14 does not mention the temple. I wonder why some scholars can so confidently declare "The collection of the ancient books was placed in the temple library or archive (see 2 Macc. 2:13f.)" (van der Kooij, p. 31). We may know from other sources that the temple contained a collection of scripture (as van der Kooij's next sentence says, and as demonstrated earlier in this post), but the text of 2Macc does not specify that Judas' literary activity related to the temple. I grant that this is a natural inference, but the text does not say it.
So, what does all this tell us? The temple probably contained a collection of scripture, including the Pentateuch and other books regarded as scripture. Exactly which books these were, we don't know. Whether the temple included books that were considered not scripture but simply important for some other reason, we don't know, though this seems likely. The idea of a temple collection of scripture might help us think about some aspects of the ancient Jewish encounter with scripture, but it doesn't really help us understand much about which specific books were considered scripture or constituted a biblical canon.
Next time we'll look at the argument for a temple collection of scripture based on a textual analysis of ancient scrolls.