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Religion Library: Judaism

Sacred Texts

Written by: Marc A. Krell

Ketuvim or "writings," is a collection of books that were most likely canonized together because they were all compiled by the end of the Second Temple period. They are comprised of a variety of material. The first section consists of poetry—Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. Then there is a grouping of five smaller books copied together because they were originally written on small scrolls—Song of Songs, an erotic love poem; Ruth, the story of the first "convert" to Judaism; Lamentations, a dirge over the destruction of the First and Second Temples; Ecclesiastes, a wisdom book portraying a Hellenistic type of fatalism; and Esther, the story of diaspora Jews triumphing over an attempted genocide. The last section of Ketuvim involves the historical texts of Daniel, depicting Judean history from the Persian to the Hellenistic periods; Ezra/Nehemiah portraying the history of the exilic period; and Chronicles, presenting a selective retelling of history from Adam through Cyrus in 538 B.C.E.

516 BCE-70 CE: Second Temple Period
70-200 CE: Period of the Tannaim ("repeaters" of oral traditions)→MISHNAH
200-500 CE: Period of the Amoraim (Mishnah "discussers")→GEMARA

While the official canonization of the Hebrew Bible ended in the 2nd century B.C.E, the transmission of "Jewish scriptures" has continued unabated in the form of midrash or commentary to the Torah up through today. In fact, one could argue that even during the biblical period, priests, prophets, psalmists, and scribes were composing scripture by recycling and reinterpreting earlier versions of it, illustrating what one biblical scholar Michael Fishbane has referred to as "inner biblical exegesis."

The Pharisees astutely referred to this type of dynamic interpretive process as the Torah shebe'al peh or Oral Torah, which they argued was equally as authoritative as the Torah shebikhtav or Written Torah, because both were given to Moses at Mt. Sinai simultaneously as parallel divine truths. Following the destruction of the Second Temple, the tannaim who had memorized the oral interpretations of the Torah by the Pharisees were forced to write them down in order to preserve them, eventually compiling them in the Mishnah by the 3rd century.

Mishna + Gerara = Talmud
 Jerusalem Talmud
Babylonian Talmud

The organic process of rabbinic commentary continued with the Amoraim, "discussers" of the Mishnah, who later compiled their interpretations in the book of the Gemara, "learning," by the end of the 5th century. Together, the Mishnah and the Gemara comprised the Talmud. While the rabbis of Palestine produced the Jerusalem Talmud, the dispersed rabbinic community of Babylonia produced its own Babylonian Talmud a century later. title: The Talmud Yet the rabbis didn't see these texts as merely literary achievements, but rather as a continuation of sacred scripture itself, arguing that every rabbinic interpretation ever to be given was already revealed to Moses at Mt. Sinai by God as part of the Oral Torah.


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