Canonical Consciousness in II Maccabees


The date of the closing of the OT canon has been and will continue to be an important topic of debate for biblical scholars, and the value of texts from the second temple period will continue to be discussed specifically with regard to the contents and shape of the canon during this time period.  In this post I want to list some of the references to the canon of the OT found in II Maccabees and provide come commentary on them. I cross-checked the terms used in Roger Beckwith’s chapter on the Titles of the Canon with the terms used in 2 Macc. The search yielded the following relevant terms: νομος, προφητης, βιβλος, βιβλιον, and Μωυσης. In this post my appreciation for Beckwith’s work, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church, is evident.

Relevant Lexemes and Texts

Torah or Law

Perhaps the most foundational part of the canon is the Torah or νομος. 2 Macc uses this word 29x, but with two principal uses: 1) in the plural it refers to the Jewish laws, identified as the “ancestral laws” in 6.1 and 7.2 et al., and 2) in the singular it refers to the Law or the Torah (1.4, 2.2. 2.3, 2.18, 10.26 et al.). Our interest is in the latter usage. Most important among these uses is 15:9, where Judas is said to have encouraged them from the Law and the Prophets. Although this seems like a two part canon, 2 Macc has more to add regarding the third part (cf. 2:13ff below), thus I understand this text to refer to the entire OT canon.

Prophets and Writings

2 Macc uses προφητης 6x with two uses: 1) it refers to the prophet Jeremiah 4x (2.1, 15.14, et al.), and 2) it refers to the Prophets, as a section of the canon 2x (2.13ff and 15.9). In the latter text, the Prophets are coupled together with the Law, but in the former, the Prophets are coupled together with other works (βιβλια) from the Hagiographa or the Writings. We will examine this text in more detail below.

The Holy Book

βιβλος is used 2x in 2 Macc (6.12 and 8.23). The former passage is a reference to the book of Maccabees, but the second is a reference to the “holy book”, which is probably a reference to either Deuteronomy or the whole Pentateuch or the Law.


The name of Moses is used 7x in 2 Macc. It always refers to the person of Moses and various things Moses both said and did. In 7.6 there is a citation from Moses’ Song in Deut. 32.36 (cp. Psalm 135.14) and in 7.30 there is a reference to the ordinance from the Law given by Moses. Thus Moses is the giver of the Law, and his word is canonical and may be cited as such.

A simple survey of these terms shows that the author of 2 Macc clearly had a canonical consciousness. He refers to the OT with titles such as the Law and the Prophets, the Holy Book, the Law of Moses, the books of David, and the letters of the Kings etc, which indicates that he is referring to a definite collection of books. There is no list of books, but there is a canon or corpus of books in his mind. Does 2 Macc say anything about the structure of this canon? Let’s now a take a closer look at the significance of 2 Macc 2:13-15 for the study of the canon.

A Closer Look at 2 Macc 2:13-15

Here is the text:

13 ἐξηγοῦντο δὲ καὶ ἐν ταῖς ἀναγραφαῖς καὶ ἐν τοῖς ὑπομνηματισμοῖς τοῖς κατὰ τὸν Νεεμιαν τὰ αὐτὰ καὶ ὡς καταβαλλόμενος βιβλιοθήκην ἐπισυνήγαγεν τὰ περὶ τῶν βασιλέων βιβλία καὶ προφητῶν καὶ τὰ τοῦ Δαυιδ καὶ ἐπιστολὰς βασιλέων περὶ ἀναθεμάτων. 14 ὡσαύτως δὲ καὶ Ιουδας τὰ διαπεπτωκότα διὰ τὸν γεγονότα πόλεμον ἡμῖν ἐπισυνήγαγεν πάντα, καὶ ἔστιν παρ᾽ ἡμῖν· 15 ὧν οὖν ἐὰν χρείαν ἔχητε, τοὺς ἀποκομιοῦντας ὑμῖν ἀποστέλλετε.

The NETS translates as follows: The same things are reported in the records and in the memoirs of Neemias, and also that he founded a library and collected the books about the kings and prophets, and the writings of Dauid, and letters of kings about votive offerings. In the same way Ioudas also collected all the books that had been lost on account of the war that had come upon us, and they are in our possession. So if you have need of them, send people to get them for you.

According to the syntax of this passage, 2 Macc makes a division between the books about the kings and prophets AND the writings of David and the letters of kings about votive offerings. The former category no doubt makes reference to the second section of the Hebrew canon, the Prophets, both former and latter, and the second category refers to the third section of the canon, the Writings. The writings of David refer to the Psalms, while the letters of the kings is probably a reference to the letters written during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, some of which are found in Ezra (6.3-12; 7.12-26), on which we comment below. Of note here is that neither section is clearly titled. He does not say that Nehemiah had the Prophets and the Writings explicitly.

This story is taken from Nehemiah’s records and memoirs, and bears the marks of historical accuracy. It recounts the catastrophe of the Exile, and Nehemiah’s attempts to preserve the non-Mosaic books (i.e. works not belonging to the Law) in a library/archive. In verse 14, Judas acts on the pattern of Nehemiah and apparently collects the works of the Prophets and Writings, with probably one major difference: in a few cases Nehemiah collected parts of non-Mosaic books, some not completed by the time of the erection of the archive (e.g. Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles) in the mid 5th century BC, but Judas probably collected all of the completed canonical works in the 2nd century BC. Judas would have had only one task left: to divide the Prophets from the Writings and to create the tripartite Hebrew canon.

We reach the conclusion that Judas made this division based on two observations: 1) it is clear that 2 Macc 2:13-15 need not require that Nehemiah recognized a tripartite closed canon by the mid 5th century BC. Rather, Nehemiah was collecting the necessary works which were eventually recognized as canonical among the Jews. Nehemiah may have recognized the difference between the Prophets and the Writings, but this text cannot prove this point. 2) It is equally clear and no-less relevant that the Jews had a tripartite structure by 133 BC (cf. Prologue to Sirach 2-3, 9-11, 24-25). Whence the tripartite structure? If it did not arise with Nehemiah and it occurs in the literature soon after the time of Judas, then it seems very probable that Judas had a hand in the formation of the Hebrew canon as we now know it. Also, the title of the third part of the canon in Sirach is not fixed. The collection of books is fixed (Pro.Sir. 10ff), but the title is not, since it refers to the ancestral books in one place but to the rest of the books in another. Thus perhaps Pro, Sir. indicates that this division between Prophets and Writings is a fresh one, since the latter is still awaiting a fixed title (Beckwith, 152).

2 Macc 2.13-15, then, witnesses to an intermediary stage between Nehemiah and Sirach in the life of the canon, and provides the necessary link between authoritative-becoming-canonical books at the time of Nehemiah and a fixed canon by the time of Judas and Sirach.

Beckwith lists a few necessary factors for forming the canon that would have occurred in the intervening three centuries: 1) as noted above, some of the books needed to be finished or written, 2) to be recognized as canonical, 3) and time was needed for the realization that the gift of inspiration had ceased and that the canon was complete (152). All of these factors probably did not happen in the time of Nehemiah, but they certainly could have taken place by the time of Judas. Regarding whether the Jews were conscious that inspiration had ceased during this period see 1 Macc 9:27 (cp. 4.46, 14.41). Also of note is that this tripartite structure would have needed to be recognized before the division of the Jews into their sects of Pharisees, Saducees and Essenes in 152-142 under Jonathan Maccabaeus, since all three sects recognized the canonicity of the books in the three sections. Therefore, Beckwith suggests a date c. 164 BC, which is the date of the struggle between Antiochus Epiphanes and the Jews, referred to in 2 Macc 2:14ff, as the date in which the canon received its final structure (Beckwith, 152-3).

This interpretation coheres with Jesus’ comment in the first century AD in Luke 24:44ff where he refers to the tripartite structure of the OT canon. Note that Jesus uses the word “Psalms” as the title of the third part of the canon, probably because this book was either first or second in the collection of the third part by his day, depending on whether Ruth was first or second.


Although the fact and structure of the OT canon cannot be established in 2 Macc alone, it is clear that this book provides sufficient evidence for constructing the history of the OT canon. Specifically, 1) it seems to assume the fact of the closed canon by around 100 BC, when it was written and 2) it provides evidence of the intermediary period between Nehemiah and Sirach, when Judas would have placed the already fully canonical works into a definite structure in tripartite form, to which Sirach refers. Further questions remain about which books were included and which were excluded, but that there was a canonical structure and some books were not being considered canonical (e.g. Sirach itself is considered wisdom and instructional and not canon) by c. 160 BC provides firm footing for supposing that such a list did exist during this time.


4 thoughts on “Canonical Consciousness in II Maccabees

    1. Thanks Josh!

      I heard about the colloquium. I wish I had been able to attend it. Hopefully, you were able to take away some insights concerning this very important issue.

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