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.

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  1. Thanks for this post. It helps me better see where you are coming from. If I understand you correctly, your approach might best be described as a “hermeneutic of trust” with an emphasis on the internal evidence for canon formation. In other words, you are inclined to accept the Bible’s own testimony of itself in the absence of any internal evidence to the contrary. Do you find this to be a fair assessment?

    Perhaps you could help clarify some lingering questions for me. Your early evidence for canon formation begins with writing that the biblical text attributes to Moses, and you are undoubtedly implying that this writing represents the earliest stage in canon formation. You point to Exodus 40:20 and the “testimony” that is put into the ark. What do you consider to be the contents of this testimony? It seems logical to suggest at minimum this “testimony” includes the Decalogue. We might further include the legal portions of the book of Exodus. A maximalist interpretation would include both books of Genesis and Exodus in full, though I find this problematic given 1 Kings 8:9 (see the discussion of that passage below).

    You cite verses from Deuteronomy 31 about “this Book of the Law.” Do you consider this to be an early version of the book of Deuteronomy, the book in its entirety, or would you argue we now have a complete Pentateuch? This is important to specify because you link whatever this book of the law is to the document the king was to copy, which is a part of your temple preservation argument. If some of these texts are not included (e.g., Genesis, narrative Exodus texts, Leviticus, Numbers, parts of Deuteronomy like chapters 31-32), do you know of any internal evidence directly linking these texts to the temple and the Levitical scribes, or is this something we must take on faith? The fact that the king is supposed to copy this material suggests to me we are looking at a fairly limited text, something focused on royal responsibilities or judicial texts more broadly speaking.

    Regarding Joshua 24, you see Joshua continuing the process Moses began. What are “these words” which Joshua wrote? Is this the entirety of the book of Joshua? The nearest antecedent is the covenant with its statutes and rules. Interestingly, we don’t possess a canonical text that includes “statutes and rules” delivered by Joshua, certainly nothing resembling Moses’ words in Deuteronomy where this language elsewhere occurs so frequently. Could this text actually be referring to a text that was not incorporated into the canon and preserved for us?

    You reference 1 Kings 8:9 and the two tablets placed in the ark. I would assume that the two tablets are two copies of the Decalogue, though I must admit I’m puzzled as to what version of the Decalogue. The Exodus copy seems more likely, as there does not appear to be any internal evidence in Deuteronomy for a second set of tablets at Horeb (cf., Deut 10:5). Nevertheless, the text refers to the tablets that “Moses put there at Horeb.” There is no internal evidence of Moses putting tablets in the ark at Horeb, so I’m not sure what to make this particular verse.

    I’m also puzzled by your next argument. You say that this verse in 1 Kings 8 explains the presence of a scroll for Hilkiah to find, 300 years later in the temple. What do these two tablets have to do with a scroll, other than to suggest that the temple contains some writing? Interestingly, these tablets serve a cultic function in a fairly inaccessible part of the temple. Is seems unlikely that the Levitical priests are consulting these tablets regularly, if ever. They certainly cannot contain the amount of textual material that you would argue we have by this point in the storyline. (Pentateuch + Joshua, possibly even Judges and Samuel?) I’m unclear how these tablets are relevant to the discussion of scribes devoted to textual preservation and promulgation.

    The passage in 1 Kings 8 also suggests that the testimony kept in the ark in Exodus 40 contained only the Decalogue since both testimony and tablets reside in the ark. 1 Kings 8 emphasizes the ark is empty except for these two tablets. If one supposes the “testimony” of Exodus 40 contained more than just the Decalogue, then some of that material must have been either lost or transferred to a different medium.

    Regardless, I struggle to see the same connection you see between these tablets in the ark and the scroll of the law that Hilkiah finds. There appears to be two different texts involved here. On the one hand, the tablets sound like the Decalogue or some kind of brief covenantal text. On the other hand, the scroll Hilkiah discovers sounds more like the text mentioned in Deuteronomy that was placed beside the ark. But if Joshua added material to this book, and Deuteronomy contains no statutes and laws given by Joshua, how dogmatic should we be about linking the Deuteronomy text to the text discussed in 2 Kings 22? You also include a quote that that refers to 1 Samuel 10 and material written by Samuel, but this Samuel text likewise sounds like a legal or judicial text concerning royal obligations. To what does this passage refer? Is this a narrative text (Judges and part of Samuel)? Is it not also possible that these covenantal and royal texts written by Joshua and Samuel were intentionally excluded from the canon or unintentionally lost to antiquity?

    I should wrap this up because I feel I’ve already gone too long already. I feel I understand your perspective better, but I struggle to see an abundance of internal evidence. The verses you have cited are fascinating texts, without a doubt! However, I find this material raises interpretive questions for which there are a variety of reasonably conclusions. Perhaps there is a nascent canon in Deuteronomy that grows at the hands of Joshua and Samuel (though the latter two individuals, again, appear to be writing “statutes and rules,” not narratives), and this growing canon is preserved and promulgated in and from the temple, lost, eventually discovered by Hilkiah, and overseen by Ezra the scribe as you have argued. Furthermore, perhaps the temple is functioning as Jason outlined in your previous post. But I still fail to see, in light of the numerous questions and interpretive options above, why this argument is more plausible than other arguments one could make, even when focusing on the internal evidence.

    And as an aside, let me offer my congrats. I’m delighted to hear that your wife and son are doing well.

    1. Thanks for the congrats, Joseph,

      In response to your questions, perhaps the simplest thing to say is that I find the statements in Baba Bathra 14B to be plausible explanations. It says, for instance, that Samuel wrote the parts of 1-2 Sam that precede his death, then Nathan and Gad did the rest (cued no doubt by 1 Chr 29:29).

      Baba Bathra 14B isn’t inspired Scripture, so it could be mistaken on some points. But basically, yes, I think Deut 31 is referring to the Torah (taking the standard evangelical view that some place names were updated and the acct of Moses’ death was added), perhaps Joshua 24 has in view the whole of the developing canon, which at that point would be a hexateuch, and then the other passages have in view as much Scripture as has been written and recognized up to the time the statements were made.

      Even if we distinguish between tablets and testimony, I think we see that both are associated with the holy place. Both are seen to be sacred, like the shrine, and both are protected.

      I hope this helps. Off the top of my head, not checking references . . .

      1. Hi Jim, congrats on the new birth!

        This is a helpful discussion but, what do we gain from a “canonical” (which you seem to be using as a cypher for “autograph”) text that resided at the temple against which all other texts were judged if something as foundational as the Decalogue was not preserved in “canonical” form even within the Pentateuch itself? And then, what sparked this conversation, the NT and Early Church writers are unconcerned about going back to a Hebrew “canonical” text and are happy with quoting Greek texts–or even making their own unattested adaptions? Functionally, this “canonical” (again, unless I misunderstand, you are talking about “autographical”) text isn’t in play.

        Also, the Milton Fischer quote is almost entirely wrong. The only time texts in the ANE become “fixed” (and even then it is a very relative form of “fixity”) are when scribes loose facility in the language of the text they are rewriting. Until that point, texts are fluid and scribes entered into the streams of tradition themselves and felt free to adapt and modify these texts. I don’t know where he got any of his info from but none of what he said is believed by any ANE scholars that I know of.

        1. I’m not sure I understand what you mean about the Decalogue not being preserved in canonical form even within the Pentateuch. Are you playing Exod 20 off against Deut 5?

          I think the differences there are analogous to the differences between the Synoptic Gospels, and I don’t think any of these kinds of things undermines the idea of there being a canon of Scripture.

          Nor do I think your point about the NT authors being happy to quote Greek texts undermines the canonicity of the Hebrew text. Think about the situation in which we find ourselves: lots of people who are committed to the canonicity of the Hebrew text are happy to quote English translations, or even paraphrases, for different purposes.

          I agree with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which says that insofar as a translation accurately represents the original it can be regarded as the word of God.

          I’m not necessarily equating “canonical” with “autograph.” I think the Spirit was at work in whoever it was (Ezra?) who put the final form of the books of the OT into their canonical shape.

          1. Hi Jim, that is a helpful clarification. But it seems to me that the decalogues are not merely accurate translations of one original but different versions, right? The Deuteronomy text is not accurately translating Exodus but saying something different–giving a different rationale. However we explain this, Deuteronomy doesn’t seem concerned with representing the decalogue in a rigid “canonical” form. And what about the NT uses that don’t translate from a Hebrew version but stem a Greek tradition or something else entirely?

        2. Charles, see the second comment I left for you on the other thread. A concept largely misunderstood is the one of Hebraizing Greek revisions of the LXX. We need to remember that the NT authors are caught right in the middle of this tendency and they often use these versions instead of the LXX. The later church used the LXX, but the NT authors did not use the LXX simply because it was the LXX. There is a difference between the NT and later church history towards the stance of the LXX, which I do not think has been adequately grasped. I’m not saying that the NT authors never use the LXX or that they cite the Hebrew text (obviously). I’m only saying that simplistic explanations for their text form have to be abandoned. The interpretational plurality is more complex.

          1. Okay, cool, John–so the textual environment was very complex and in flux and the NT writers were right in the middle of this and seemed to use texts from all of these versions and traditions, etc and all of this was considered appropriate without feeling straightjacketed into one, singular “canonical” form even though there are tendencies one way or the other. That’s what I’m saying.

          2. Charles, I’m glad you came back on this point. Did your eye skip over the part where I said these versions are Hebraizing revisions of the LXX? The NT authors are caught in the flow of revising the LXX to the proto-MT as the evidence indicates. This is why Matthew actually cites a text Out of Egypt I called my son or John cites a text which says They will look on him/me whom they have pierced and so on. Rather than concluding textual fluidity, I think it is better to talk about interpretational fluidity in the specific sense that there were different reading traditions of the same Hebrew text in many ways like the translation issue we have today. This problem was already anticipated in the Prologue to Sirach where the grandson notes the great difficulties in rendering the Hebrew text into Greek.

            The question is, what are the factors which led the NT authors to cite the Hebraizing revision rather than the LXX? Regional texts? Memory (but here why have they memorized the Hebraizing revision instead of the LXX)? Choice (perhaps Paul had a choice of texts)? In fact it is only in a relative few cases that Paul cites the LXX unambiguously where it deviates from the Hebrew (see Florian Wilk, “Letters of Paul as Witnesses to and for the Septuagint Text” in Septuagint Research, 255). Even when authors cite the LXX where it deviates drastically from the Hebrew (e.g. Hebrews 1:6 cites LXX/DSS Deut 32:43) we have to ask more careful questions about which text actually best represents the original Hebrew text. MT Deut 32:43 is secondary to the more original text in LXX/DSS.

            So I see the situation different than you do. I take the presence of revisions from Nahal Hever to Origen to indicate that Jews and some Christians are in the process of conforming the LXX to the proto-MT. For the Jews this culminates in Aquila and for the Christians this culminates in Jerome via Caesarean school of Origen. After Origen, the Christian manuscript tradition was in many cases reflective of a Hebraized tradition (see the longer text of Job which permeated the entire Greek manuscript tradition and only the Sahidic and a few Old Latin citations preserve the shorter text of the Old Greek).

            For you this creates plurality, and I understand that interpretation of the evidence. For me, this evidence shows that from before the time of Jesus they had attached significance to a specific Hebrew text, the proto-MT and they desire to bring their Greek version into more strict alignment with it.

            Thanks for the dialogue. I appreciate you, brother.

  2. Hi brothers. If I may be allowed to chime into this intriguing discussion. My comments will be restricted to the relationships of the Decalogue versions of Exod 20 and Deut 5.

    Clearly Deut 5:6–21 evidences a number of distinctions from the Exodus version. Most obvious are (1) the change of focus from God’s work in creating the world to his work in creating a people (i.e., the Exodus) as the basis for Sabbath keeping (Deut 5:12-15), (2) the shaping of the final six prohibitions into a single unit by a fronted “and” (5:17-21), and (3) the transformation of the prohibitions against coveting (5:21a-b) by using two different verbs, by including “field” before the list of household members, and by transposing “house” and “wife,” thus separating the latter from the list and placing the charge against lust (i.e., coveting a neighbor’s wife) on its own line. Nevertheless, it is evident that Deuteronomy itself treats its Decalogue as a reiteration of the very “Ten Words” spoken by God out of the midst of the fire at the mountain of God––namely, as an echo of Exod 20:1–17 (cf. Deut 5:4–5, 22 with 4:12–13 and 10:4). After the 40 years in the wilderness (1:3-4; 4:45-46), the Ten Words have been updated, probably for Moses’ pastoral purposes (see Daniel I. Block, “‘You Shall Not Covet Your Neighbor’s Wife’: A Study in Deuteronomy’s Domestic Ideology,” JETS 53 [2010] 449–74). What seems clear is that any proposed tensions were not felt by the Pentateuch’s final editor. Furthermore, unlike the Exodus version, the text of Deuteronomy itself suggests that it is a secondary account that rests on a law that Yahweh previously proclaimed at Sinai. This is most evident in the twice stated subordinate clause “just as Yahweh your God commanded you,” which stands as a plus in Deuteronomy’s Words on the Sabbath and honoring one’s parents (Deut 5:12, 16). As Lohfink concluded, this formulaic back-reference ensures that “in spite of the changes and additions that have been made [in the deuteronomic version], at bottom nothing is commanded that is not also in the older version” (“The Decalogue in Deuteronomy 5,” in THEOLOGY OF THE PENTATEUCH, 262). In light of this fact, it seems to me the Decalogue IS being viewed as a canonical document, located in the shrine––a document that is able to be applied to fresh situations without variation to its essence.

    A couple other features that may be relevant to this particular discussion are the use of L’MR to introduce the Decalogue in both Exod and Deut and the shift from 1st to 3rd person in the way Yahweh is addressed (note the switch at the command not to bear Yahweh’s name falsely). Along with seeing the change from first to third person in the Decalogue as a tool for uniting material that is to be read together, I propose the shift could be a formal marker signaling when the leaders of Israel ran to Moses and requested that he serve as mediator of Yahweh’s voice (Exod 20:19, Deut 5:27). While it is clear that Yahweh spoke all Ten Words to the people (Deut 5:22), the leaders engaged Moses immediately after Yahweh began to speak (5:23; cf. Exod 20:18–19). Furthermore, Deuteronomy 5 introduces the Ten Words with Moses already serving as covenant mediator, and the difficult infinitive construct L’MR ‘to say’ at the end of Deut 5:5 may as easily modify Moses’ “declaring” (LHGYD


    A couple other features that may be relevant to this particular discussion are the use of L’MR to introduce the Decalogue in both Exod and Deut and the shift from 1st to 3rd person in the way Yahweh is addressed (note the switch at the command not to bear Yahweh’s name falsely). Along with seeing the change from first to third person in the Decalogue as a tool for uniting material that is to be read together, I propose the shift could be a formal marker signaling when the leaders of Israel ran to Moses and requested that he serve as mediator of Yahweh’s voice (Exod 20:19, Deut 5:27). While it is clear that Yahweh spoke all Ten Words to the people (Deut 5:22), the leaders engaged Moses immediately after Yahweh began to speak (5:23; cf. Exod 20:18–19). Furthermore, Deuteronomy 5 introduces the Ten Words with Moses already serving as covenant mediator, and the difficult infinitive construct L’MR ‘to say’ at the end of Deut 5:5 may as easily modify Moses’ “declaring” (LHGYD) in 5:5 as Yahweh’s “speaking” (Piel DBR) in 5:4. With this, it is at least possible that the record “And [Moses] said to them” (Exod 19:25) that comes just before the Decalogue points to Moses relaying God’s Words to the people (so Hamilton, EXODUS, 316).

    Significantly, the L’MR ‘to say’ speech frame that introduces the Decalogue in both Exod 20:1 and Deut 5:4–5 by nature marks a non-prototypical speech event, which includes at least one of the following features: summarizes several similar speeches or one long speech, presents the statements of many people as one statement, has one character in the story cite a prior statement by another character in the story, comes through an agent or prop rather than a full char- acter or is from someone who is not actually present and participating in the current conversation, or functions as the ocial record of the principal points made by speak- ers and is thus less vivid conversation than it is a documentation of the essential points made by the speakers (C. L. Miller, “Discourse Functions of Quotative Frames in Biblical Hebrew,” in DISCOURSE ANALYSIS OF BIBLICAL LITERATURE, 165; idem, THE REPRESENTATION OF SPEECH IN BIBLICAL HEBREW NARRATIVE, 425–29; cf. my summary in A MODERN GRAMMAR FOR BIBLICAL HEBREW, 323–27). One would expect L’MR to introduce Deuteronomy’s version of the Decalogue, because Moses the mediator is recalling the Decalogue from an earlier time; however, the use of L’MR in Exodus is less expected and may serve as a signal that even that version of the Decalogue came through the agency of Moses and is a pastoral application of the shortened Decalogue housed in the ark. Regardless, it seems to me that the differences cannot be viewed as adding or taking away (Deut 4:2). Furthermore, with M. G. Kline long ago, because the Decalogue was a covenantal document, it was by nature canonical/authoritative, and Moses clearly appears to be treating it as such.

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