The Scriptures and the Shrine: On the Keeping of an Authoritative Copy of the Scriptures at the Temple

Some questions have been raised by Charles Halton and T. Michael Law about the suggestion that an authoritative copy of the Scriptures would have been maintained at the temple in Jerusalem, making discussions of the canon unnecessary prior to the destruction of the temple in AD 70. Law tweeted that there is “not a shred of evidence.”

I think there is abundant evidence for this already in the Old Testament, and then the indications that the Scriptures were kept at the shrine continue in extra-biblical Jewish literature.

  • Exodus 40:20, “[Moses] took the testimony and put it into the ark . . .”
  • Deuteronomy 31:9, “Then Moses wrote this law and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and to all the elders of Israel.”
  • Deuteronomy 31:24–26, “When Moses had finished writing the words of this law in a book to the very end, Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, ‘Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there for a witness against you.’”

This explains why the king was to write a copy of the Torah that would be “approved by the Levitical priests” (Deut 17:18). The priests had the authoritative scroll and were its stewards.

This process continued after Moses:

  • Joshua 24:25, “So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem. And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the LORD. And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the LORD that he spoke to us. . .’”

And the reality of the Word of God being kept in the temple is attested in Kings:

  • 1 Kings 8:9, “There was nothing in the ark except the two tablets of stone that Moses put there at Horeb, where the LORD made a covenant with the people of Israel, when they came out of the land of Egypt.”

This also explains why there was a scroll for Hilkiah to find in the temple in 2 Kings 22. Incidentally, in view of the reference to the “lying pen of the scribes” in Jeremiah 8:8, I would suggest that the significance of the scroll that Hilkiah found was not that it was the only one in existence but that it was the authoritative one that could demonstrate the falsehood of the lies against which Jeremiah contended.

Milton Fisher writes:

“There is now abundant evidence from the ancient Near East of a ‘psychology of canonicity’—viz., a sensitivity to the inviolability of authoritative documents as far back as early second millennium B.C. This will not surprise the careful reader of the Bible. He finds no difficulty in statements that Moses (Deut 31:9ff. [26]), Joshua (Josh 24:25, 26), and Samuel (1 Sam 10:25) placed written covenant documents in the sanctuary, for this paralleled the common practice among surrounding peoples of that day” (Fisher, EBC 1:387).

R. K. Harrison notes

“Such language was also found in Hittite suzerainty treaties, which contained a clause requiring deposition of the text in some secure location so that in subsequent generations the treaty would be available for public reading” (Harrision, ISBE 1:593).

2 Maccabees states that Nehemiah had “founded a library,” probably a reference to the collected canonical Scriptures, and like him Judas Maccabee “collected the books that had been lost on account of the war . . . and they are in our possession.” The text reads as follows:

  • 2 Maccabees 2:13–15, “The same things are reported in the records and in the memoirs of Nehemiah, and also that he founded a library and collected the books about the kings and prophets, and the writings of David, and letters of kings about votive offerings. In the same way Judas also collected all the books that had been lost on account of the war which had come upon us, and they are in our possession. So if you have need of them, send people to get them for you.”

Roger Beckwith cites texts from Josephus, the Mishna, and the Tosephta on the point that there was “a copy of the Pentateuch in the Temple called ‘the Book of Ezra’. This was probably the oldest and most revered copy of all, traditionally believed to have been written by Ezra the Scribe. If the standardization of the Massoretic text was a process which began in Temple times, as it now seems to have been, the existence of the ‘Book of Ezra’ and the other Temple Scriptures probably had much to do with it” (OT Canon of the NT Church, 83–84).

I think this evidence shows that Moses initiated the preservation of God’s word in the ark of the covenant, making the Levitical priests the stewards of the Torah. Later OT texts indicate that God’s authoritative word was kept at the temple, resulting in it being there for Hilkiah to find in Josiah’s day. Ezra’s significance in his return to the land, seen in both Ezra and Nehemiah, included his being “a ready scribe,” one who thoroughly knew the Scriptures and could quickly find his way in them.

What evidence is there that this canonical consciousness seen in the OT texts suddenly disappeared? What evidence is there that the practice of keeping God’s authoritative word at the temple ceased to be a concern of the Jews who lived between Malachi and Jesus?

Arguments from silence based on deductions from fragmentary evidence or translation practices do not overturn the asseverations in 2 Maccabees and Josephus (along with other texts) that there was an authoritative scroll kept at the temple. See Beckwith for full documentation.