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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Are the Right Books in the Old Testament?

Don Stewart :: Why Is There a Threefold Division of the Hebrew Canon? (Law, Prophets, Writings)

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Why Is There a Threefold Division of the Hebrew Canon? (Law, Prophets, Writings)

Are the Correct Books in the Old Testament? – Question 15

Apart from the first five books of the Old Testament, there is a different order between the books of the Hebrew Bible and that of English Bibles. The Hebrew Bible has three divisions—the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the sacred Writings (also known as the Hagiographa).

The Prophets consist of eight books in the following order: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the Twelve (the Minor Prophets).

The Writings consist of eleven books that are ordered in this manner: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles. The Book of Ruth was originally placed before the Psalms. However, in the Middle Ages it was moved next to the other smaller books, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, and Esther.

Why Was the Hebrew Canon Divided into Three Parts?

One of the questions that Bible students ask is, “Why was the Hebrew canon divided into three parts?” Why were the books grouped according to the Law, Prophets, and the Writings? Is there any reason as to why a certain book was in the Prophets rather than the Writings?

There Are Four Possible Answers

There have been a number of answers given to this question. The main ones include the following:

  1. There were three different historical stages when the books were canonized.
  2. The books in section two were written by prophets, while the books in section three were not.
  3. The books were divided according to their literary character.
  4. The threefold division did not occur until after the time of Christ.

We will look at each theory individually and consider the case for it.

Option 1: There Were Three Stages of Canonization of the Old Testament Scripture (the Triple Canon Theory)

One popular theory is that the Hebrew Old Testament was canonized in three stages. Thus, the reason as to why we find these books in their present threefold division is because it reflects the order in which they were canonized. Supposedly, there was a gradual development of the Hebrew canon over a long period of time.

Arguments for the Triple Canon Theory

The arguments that have been used for the Triple Canon Theory can be simply stated as follows:

The Three Sections Represented Three Stages of Development

According to this theory, the Law of Moses was canonized in the fifth century B.C., the prophets were canonized in the third century B.C., and the Hagiographa, the holy Writings, were not canonized until the first century A.D.

This explains why we find the threefold division of the Hebrew Scripture; the sacred writings were canonized in three historical stages.

1. A Number of Books in the Third Section Were Completed Too Late to Be Canonical at the Time of Christ

The books in the third section were not recognized as Scripture in the third century before Christ. According to this theory, it is possible that some of them, including Daniel, had not even been written at that time.

It was not until after the time of Christ that the Writings in the third section were regarded as Scripture. Therefore, when Jesus was on the earth, only the Law and Prophets were recognized as Holy Scripture.

2. The Council of Jamnia Added the Writings to the Canon and Then Closed It

Finally, it has been argued that the Jewish Council of Jamnia, meeting around A.D. 90, defined the extent of the canon. They added the third section, the Writings, to the canon. The authorities at Jamnia then closed the canon once and for all.

Therefore, three different groups of sacred writings are recognized because there were three different times of recognition in history. This is how this particular theory is usually stated.


While this theory was once popular, it is not held by leading scholars today. The main problem with this theory is that several of the prophetic books were written much later than the books found in the “Writings.”

In addition, we now know that all of the books found in the Old Testament canon had been composed long before the time of Christ since copies of all of them, except Esther and possibly Nehemiah, were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls which date from 100-200 years before the time of Christ. In addition, there is no evidence that an authoritative council met in Jamnia to add the writings to the canon or to determine its extent. Consequently, this theory has generally been abandoned.

Option 2: the Last Two Sections Are Divided Between Prophets and Non-Prophets

There is also the view that the second stage of the Hebrew canon was written exclusively by prophets, while the third stage was composed of books written by non-prophets. The writers of the third section had the prophetic gift, but did not hold a prophetic office. David, Solomon, Daniel, and Ezra, whose writings are found in the third section, were not prophets in the sense of holding a prophetic office. However, the Scripture does say that David and Daniel had the prophetic gift.

The problem with this view is that one of the prophets of the second section, Amos, seems to state that he was not a prophet by office. Note how the New Revised Standard Version translates this verse:

Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.” (Amos 7:14 NRSV)

However the New English Translation renders the verse in this manner:

Amos replied to Amaziah, “I was not a prophet by profession. No, I was a herdsman who also took care of sycamore fig trees.” (Amos 7:14 NET)

In this passage, Amos seems to say that he is not a prophet. However, this passage does not necessarily refute the idea that the second section consisted of those who have held the prophetic office. As we observed, the Hebrew can be translated, “I was neither a prophet” or “I was not a prophet by profession,” instead of “I am” no prophet.

Consequently, Amos would be saying that he became a prophet through the call of God, rather than outright denying that he was ever a prophet by profession. If this is the case, then this theory may explain the divisions into the Prophets and the Writings.

Option 3: They Were Divided According to Their Literary Character

There is also the position that the books are grouped according to their literary character—Law, Prophets, and Writings. The first section contains the Law of Moses; the second contains the works of the Prophets, while the third contains the Holy Writings.

According to this theory, the three divisions have nothing to do with the order in which they were written, or the time they were canonized. There are parts of the third section that are equally as old as parts of the second section. For example, some of the Psalms were composed centuries before the last of the writing prophets—Ezekiel, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Consequently, there is no evidence that the Hagiographa, the writings, was the last collection of books to be placed into the canon.

In addition, each of the three divisions has an historical section. The first section contains history from creation through the Law of Moses.

The second section is from the time of Moses to the end of the Hebrew monarchy.

The third section contains the history of the Babylonian captivity and then the return. For example, Daniel, Esther, Ezra, and Nehemiah give the history of this third period of Israel’s history. This is the reason as to why they are in the third section. The reason Chronicles is placed last is because it summarizes Old Testament history—not because it was the last work to be canonized.

Therefore, the Old Testament Scriptures are divided into three parts according to their literary character, with each part containing an historical section.

Option 4: There Was No Threefold Division Until after the Time of Christ

Finally, there is also the possibility that the threefold division into Law, Prophets, and Writings, was not something that happened until after New Testament times. At the time of Christ, the Old Testament was divided into two sections; the Law and the Prophets. It was only after the New Testament era, and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70, that the Prophets were divided into two sections; the Prophets and the Writings. Therefore, the triple division of the Old Testament Scripture occurred after biblical times. Consequently, the fact that the Old Testament was eventually divided into three sections has no relevance in determining how the canon was formed.

There is something else that needs to be remembered about the collection process. The sacred writings were written upon separate scrolls. Consequently, it is not possible, or necessary, to place them in any exact sequence. What we do know is that there were a number of sacred writings that existed and they were eventually placed in three categories; the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings.

Summary – Question 15
Why Is There a Threefold Division of the Old Testament Canon? (Law, Prophets, Writings)

The Old Testament Scriptures are now divided into three sections—the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. There is no explanation as to why this is so. There are four theories that explain this division.

One theory holds that each group was canonized at different stages. The Law was first canonized, then the Prophets, and then finally the writings. The final stage did not take place until after the time of Christ. However, there is evidence that parts of the Holy Writings, section three, are older than parts of the works of the prophets found in section two. This theory, though once popular, has largely been abandoned.

Another theory holds that the section of the Prophets consisted of only those writers who held the prophetic office while the third section, though it included people with the prophetic gift, did not have the office of a prophet.

A third view says that the works are divided according to their literary character. The first section contained the Law, the second section the Prophets, and the third the Writings. Each section also has a history that corresponded to three different periods of Old Testament history.

The fourth theory holds that the modern division of Law, Prophets, and Writings, did not occur until after the city of Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70. Before that time, the Hebrew Scriptures were divided into two sections: the Law and the Prophets. Therefore, the present division into three sections has nothing to do with the canonizing of the books since it occurred centuries after the canon was closed.

While we cannot be certain which of these theories is correct, we can say for certain that the threefold division of the canon did not correspond to three stages of the development of the canon. The canon was closed about 400 B.C. when the last of the Old Testament writings was composed. The division into the Law, Prophets, and Writings is merely a convenient way of organizing the Holy Books.

What Was the Extent of the Old Testament Canon among the People Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? ← Prior Section
Was the Hebrew Canon Determined after the Time of Christ? (The Council of Jamnia) Next Section →
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