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

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Don Stewart

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).

There Were Eight Books Of The Prophets

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

There Were Eleven Books Of The Writings

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 Three Popular Theories

There have been a number of answers given to this question. The main ones include: 1. There were three different historical stages when the books were canonized. 2. The books in section two were written by prophets while books in section three were not. 3. The books were divided according to their literary character.

Option 1. There Was Three Stages Of Canonization

There have been those who have argued that the Hebrew Old Testament was canonized in three stages. The reason these books are found in their present order is the order in which they were canonized. Supposedly there was a gradual development of the canon over a long period of time. 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 was not canonized until the first century A.D.

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

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.

There Seems To Be A Problem With This View

The problem with this view is that one of the prophets of the second section seems to state that he was not a prophet by office.

Amos answered Amaziah, "I am neither a prophet nor a prophet's son, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. But the LORD took me from tending the flock and said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel'" (Amos 7:14).

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. The Hebrew can be translated, "I was neither a prophet" instead of "I am" neither a 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.

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 was the last collection of books to be placed into the canon.

Each Division Has An Historical Section

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 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.


The Old Testament Scriptures are divided into three sections - the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. There is no explanation as to why this is so. There are three popular theories to 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. Also there is no need to date Daniel and Chronicles as late as the first theory does.

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.

The 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 in Old Testament history.

While we cannot know for certain, the best answer seems to be the third theory - the books were divided according to their literary character.


The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.


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