The Postexilic History of Israel. VIII.

By Professor Willis J Beecher, D.D.,

Auburn, N. Y.



A vast number of Jewish and Christian traditions, of various ages and various degrees of credibility, connect the completion of the Old Testament with the times of Ezra, of the Great Synagogue, of the Samaritan schism, of Nehemiah.

According to the classical passage from Maimonides (cited, for example, in Ugolino, vol. 1., col. 12) the " Consistory of Ezra," that is, " the men of the Great Synagogue " included Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Daniel and his three companions, Nehemiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Zerubbabel, and others, the whole number being a hundred and twenty, and the last man in the list being Simon the Just.

In the Pirke Aboth of Rabbi Nathan the Babylonian, dating from about the middle of the second century A. D., is the passage:

"Moses received the law from Sinai, and delivered it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets delivered it to the men of the Great Synagogue . . . Simon the Just was of the remnant of the Great Synagogue. "

These two represent an immense number of pasaages which speak either of the men of the Great Synagogue, or of Ezra in those relations in which he was the leading spirit among the men of the Great Synagogue, or of work done on the Scriptures in the times of the men of the Great Synagogue. Recent scholarship has been much occupied with the question whether these men were organized into a corporation, what sort of a corporation it was, whether the corporation was entitled to give official sanction to the Old Testament, and gave it. We need not now touch these questions; we have to do with the men themselves, not with their organization. In any case, the men are historical persons, and, on any of the theories, the descriptive term " men of the Great Synagogue " is a good term to apply to them. Whatever be true concerning the organization, work on the Scriptures is attributed to the men.

In the present state of thought on the matter, this last statement needs to be limited by two others. First, the traditions cited and other like traditions make the succession of men known as the men of the Great Synagogue to be, as a whole, later than the succession known as " the Prophets"; but this does not change the fact that they affirm that most of the more prominent men of the Great Synagogue were themselves prophets, nor give any reason for asserting that any Scriptural work was done by the men of the Great Synagogue, save by prophetic authority, Second, the traditions represent that the succession of the men of the Great Synagogue continued till Simon the Just, that is, either till about 300 B. C., or till about 200 B. C.; but it does not follow that they did any Scripture-producing work after the death of the last prophets among them. If any one argues that the traditions teach that the Old Testament was completed after the death of the latest prophets, or by men who were not prophets, he needs other proof than this, in order to maintain his position.

We shall get the best point of view for the further judging of these traditions, if, in addition to the examination we have already made as to the external events of the times, we now glance at certain literary phenomena presented by the books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah.

These books, taken together, constitute a single historical work, or if you prefer, a single series of historical works, covering the whole field of sacred history, from the beginning to the close of the Old Testament times. Owing to the relative simplicity of their structure, and the accessibility of information in regard to some of their component parts, they are good books with which to begin that form of critical study in which one attempts to ascertain the literary processes by which a work was produced.

The book of Ezra is composed of two parts. The first part, chapters 1-6, is anonymous. It is a unit, but a unit made up by copying older writings, connecting them by the addition of a few statements of fact. The older writings are: first, the proclamation of Cyrus, I:2-4, second, the genealogical paper, 2:1-67, and third, the Aramaic narrative, 4:8-6:18, which itself includes five different state papers. See STUDENT for Oct. 1889, pp. 230, 231.

This first part of Ezra may be regarded as the nucleus of the whole series. The writer of Chronicles closes his work with the sentences with which Ezra begins, as much as to say that, having brought up his work to the point already treated of in the history of the times of Zerubbabel, his task is done.

The second part of the book of Ezra, chaps. 7-10, is a sequel to the first part. As a whole, it is written in the first person, in the name of Ezra, and there is no reason to dispute that he is the author of it, or that the documents it contains, for example, the proclamation, 7:I 1-26, are authentic.

The book of Nehemiah is a series of papers, giving the sequel to the history recorded in Ezra, mostly written in the first person, and ostensibly by Nehemiah himself, 1:1, etc. Four of these papers end with the formula " Remember me, O my God," etc., the last two papers being very brief, 5:19; 13:14, 22, 31. The parts not thus attributed to Nehemiah are certain genealogical records and abstracts of records, 7:6-73; 11; 12:1-26, and perhaps the account of the convocation, chaps. 8-10, though this account claims to have been written by a participant, who says "we ", when he speaks of what was done, 10:30, 31, 32, 34, etc. Many hold that the book mentions events later than Nehemiah's lifetime, and must therefore have been prepared by some later author, who used Nehemiah's memoranda; in the STUDENT for January 1890, I have given the reasons why it seems to me that the events mentioned all fall within Nehemiah's probable lifetime, and therefore afford no argument against his having himself written the book. In any case, it may be a matter of dispute whether the book is a continuous composition, or a series of excerpts from a larger work.

Evidently the writer of Nehemiah copied the genealogical document, 7:6-73, not from an independent source, but from our book of Ezra, for he copies part of the narrative which in Ezra follows the document, as well as the document itself, Ezra 2:1-3:1. It follows that the many differences between Ezra and Nehemiah in the language of this document are due either to revision by the author of Nehemiah, or to copyists' mistakes, or to both. It also follows that the writer of Nehemiah had access to the first part of Ezra, as a work previously written.

It is possible to regard Neh. 12:23 as affirming that the priestly genealogies in our books of Chronicles extend up to a certain date, and this interpretation fits the latest items actually found in I Chron. 9. On this supposition, the book of Chronicles was not only in existence, but was know by its present title, when this verse in Nehemiah was written.

Evidently the author (or authors) of these books and of Chronicles had access to a somewhat extensive library, It included the older historical books of the Old Testament, and most of the Psalms and prophetic books; but it also included many writings not now extant. I think that the book of Kings referred to in 2 Chron. 16:11; 25:26; 28:26; 32:32; 27:7; 35:26-27; 36:8; 20:34; 24:27, may be, through all the variations of the title, our present books of Kings, though, if this be so, the formula of reference is used, in some cases, with a wide latitude. I see no difficulty in supposing that the " Words" of Samuel, Nathan, and Gad, I Chron. 29:29, may be our books of Judges and Samuel. I think it likely that the works of Nathan, Ahijah, Jedo, Shemaiah, Jehu, Isaiah, referred to in 2 Chron. 9:29; 12:15; 20:34; 26:22; 32:32 are sections of our present books of Kings and Isaiah, cf. I Kgs. 1-9; 1 1:29-39; 14:1-18; 12:13-22 sq., etc. But apart from all these, we have a long list of works mentioned in Chronicles, which certainly were no part of these earlier Scriptures:the book of Kings, I Chron. 9:1, the " Words of the Kings of Israel," 2 Chron. 33:18, the Midrash of the Kings, 24:27, the Midrash of Iddo, 13:22, the Words of Hosai, 33:19, the Lamentations, 35:25, the genealogical work of Iddo, 12:15, the Commandment of David, Gad, and Nathan, 29:25, writings by David and Solomon, 35:4, the " Last Words of David ", I Chron. 23:27, lists by Shemaiah, 24:6, the Chronicles of King David," 27:24.

The writer of Chronicles puts a sharp difference between the books of Samuel and Kings, with the Psalms, on the one hand, and all uncanonical books, on the other hand, in the way he uses them. Currently, though not uniformly, he transcribes the parts of the former which he uses, making slight changes, so that, in these sections, the peculiarities of the earlier and the later Hebrew stand side by side; but in the parts of his writings drawn from other sources, the peculiarities of the later Hebrew appear throughout, showing that, in these sections, he ordinarily rewrote whatever he took from ancient sources.

He was guided by the purpose of supplementing the sacred history that had been written earlier. This appears as distinctly in the anecdotes he adds to the compiled genealogical matters in the first eight chapters, as in the statistical and priestly matters that are added later.

It was also his purpose to bring the history up to date. This appears in the genealogies in 3:19-24; 9:1-34, etc. Noticing that I Chron. 9:2 sq. and Neh. 11:3 sq. are duplicates, though with some variations, and that some of the names in these two passages, those of the porters Talmon and Akkub, for example, are the same with those in Neh. 12:24, 25, we find that the latest facts in Chronicles are the same with those in Nehemiah. This state of things has great weight in favor of the proposition that the date of these latest facts is that of the completion of the books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, the date being in the highpriesthood of Johanan, and within the lifetime of Nehemiah, Neh. 12:23, 26.

With this state of things in mind, let us turn to the often cited passage from the Baba Batra, fol. 14 a. I take the passage, with slight changes of phrase, from Biblical Study by Professor Briggs, pp. 176, 177

"Ancient Tradition: And who wrote them? Moses wrote his book, the chapter of Balaam, and Job. Samuel wrote his book, and Judges, and Ruth. David wrote the book of Psalms with the aid of the ten ancients, with the aid of Adam the first, Melchizedek, Abraham, Moses, Heman, Jeduthun, Asaph, the three sons of Korah. Jeremiah wrote his book, the books of Kings, and Lamentations. Hezekiah and his company wrote Isaiah, Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes . . . . The men of the Great Synagogue wrote Ezekiel, and the Twelve, Daniel, and the roll of Esther . . . Ezra wrote his book and the genealogy of Chronicles until himself. "

Comment: This will support Rab, for Rab Jehuda told that Rab said, Ezra went not up from Babylon until he had registered his own genealogy; then he went up.

"And who completed [it]? "Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah."

"Joshua wrote his book? But it is written there, And Joshua died,

"Eleazar finished it.

"But yet it is written there, And Eleazar the son of Aaron died.

"Phinehas finished it.

"Samuel wrote his book? But it is written there, And Samuel died, and they buried him in Ramah.

"Gad the seer and Nathan the prophet finished it.

"Grammatically, it is here left in doubt whether the tradition ascribes to Nehemiah the completing of the genealogies, the books of Chronicles, or the Old Testament; as a matter of fact, many assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, it ascribes to him all three.

It is fashionable to sniff at this tradition. But let us remember that the man who is chiefly responsible for the literary existence of a book may fairly be said to be the man who wrote it, whether he be specifically its sole author, its principal author, its projector, or its responsible editor. Remembering this, remembering that Isaiah himself was one of the men of Hezekiah, and that the tradition apparently counts Ezekiel as well as Daniel and the latest of the minor prophets as among the men of the Great Synagogue, there is no statement in the tradition which any one. can give a good reason for disputing. In Mac. 1:10 sq. is an epistle which begins thus:

"The [people] in Jerusalem and in Judaea, and the council, and Judas, send greeting and health unto Aristobulus, king Ptolemy's teacher, who is, moreover, of the race of the anointed priests, and to the Jews that are in Egypt. "

The epistle is ostensibly dated just after the death of Antiochus Epiphanes, about 164 B. C. It contains a recital of certain historical facts concerning Antiochus, and the cleansing of the temple by Judas, and of certain more or less fabulous accounts of the preservation of the law and the sacred fire in the times of Jeremiah and Nehemiah. It counts Nehemiah as still living in the time of Jonathan the highpriest, 1:23. Then, in 2:13-16, are the words:

"And the same [things] also were reported in the records, namely, the memoirs of Nehemiah; and how he founding a library gathered together the books concerning the kings, and prophets, and those of David, and epistles of kings concerning holy gifts. And in like manner also Judas gathered together all those books that had been scattered by reason of the war we had, and they are with us, If now, possibly, ye have need thereof, send such as will bring them unto you. Since, now, we are about to celebrate the purification, we have written unto you: ye will therefore do well if ye keep the [same] days. "

 This is Bissell's text and rendering. There are some variant readings, but they are unimportant for the purpose in hand. The passage is sometimes cited as if Nehemiah's 1"library" was the completed Old Testament, and his founding of the library the closure of the Old Testament canon. I do not find that meaning in it. But the library here described is just the library that was used (see above) by the authors of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah; and we have a right to infer that the library was gathered for use, and used as soon as gathered. If he founded just such a library as this, we may be sure that he also used it in writing up the Old Testament history to date. In the often quoted passage in Josephus Against Apion, I. 8, we read:

"As to the time from the death of Moses till the reign (or, till the death) of Artaxerxes king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes; the prophets who were after Moses wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books."

"Our history hath been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time."

Apparently Josephus here affirms that the Old Testament was completed within the lifetime of Artaxerxes. If we interpret his date strictly, the evidence certainly fails, for the Old Testament mentions some events later than Artaxerxes. But interpreting th6 date by the reason he gives for it, namely, that the Old Testament is of prophetic authorship, we must understand him to mean the lifetime of the prophets who were prominent in the reign of Artaxerxes, that is to say, of Nehemiah and his associates, rather than that of Artaxerxes himself. Thus understood, the testimony of Josephus fits that of the other witnesses.

The same view is supported by all the various traditions which represent that the Old Testament was written by prophets, when combined with those which represent that the succession of prophets ended with Malachi. It is supported by all the vast body of traditions that attribute work on the Scriptures to Ezra and the men of the Great Synagogue who were his contemporaries. It is supported by the fact that the earliest post-biblical Jewish writings, the book of Ecclesiasticus, for example, in the body of it, as well as in its prologue, recognize the existence of a body of ancient sacred writings in Israel. It is supported by the many traditional passages that mention the sacred books as twenty-two or twenty-four, and make a wide distinction between these and the book of Ecclesiasticus, for example; books that were regarded as ancient and sacred when Ecclesiasticus was written must date back as far as the earlier part of the fourth century B. C. It is supported by the traditional accounts of the origin of the Septuagint translation, and is consistent with everything that is known in regard to that translation. It is supported by the silence of tradition in regard to a later origin for any part of the Old Testament.

It is true that many of the particular statements thus appealed to occur in untrustworthy contexts; but the argument from them does not greatly depend upon the separate credibility of the traditions; it depends on the evidently uncollusive agreement among them. So far as I know, there is at present no generally accepted opinion as to the completion of the Old Testament; certainly the view presented in this paper is not generally accepted; but I believe it can be maintained upon the evidence.

The matter cannot be argued here; but it will greatly aid any of us toward a correct conclusion, if we drop the current ecclesiastical and scholastic interpretations of the evidence, and try, from the evidence itself, to answer the question: Suppose that these traditions are true, to the extent to which they agree, what was the work done on the Old Testament by the men of the times of Nehemiah?

First, they gathered literary materials—such writings or fragments of writings as they could obtain, bearing on the history and the sacred institutions of their nation. Second, they made written studies on subjects of this sort; witness the Midr'shim of 2 Chron. 13:22 and 24:27, and perhaps other works that are mentioned in Chronicles. Third, they wrote the latest books of the Bible. Fourth, they collected the Biblical writings; grouping the three books of the Major Prophets, and the twelve books of the Minor Prophets; gathering the last books of the Psalms, and putting the five books of the Psalms together, partly incorporating and partly redistributing certain earlier psalm-books; bringing together the Old Testament books as a whole. In this sense they completed the Old Testament, and closed its canon. Whether they closed it in the different sense of official definition and promulgation, is a very different question. Fifth, to some extent, they probably did a work of revising, annotating, and otherwise changing the Scriptural writings they collected. There is now a strong tendency to go to an extreme in attributing to them a great deal of this, but it seems to me that the truth lies nearer the opposite extreme. Sixth, they probably did something (not all that the traditions assign to them, but something) in the way of making arrangements for the uncorrupted transmission of the writings with which they had taken so much pains.

It is possible, I think, to a large extent, to separate between the fabulous elements in these traditions and the nucleus of truth around which the fables have gathered; and if this is possible, we ought to accept the truth thus differentiated.