The Tripartite Divisions
The Old Testament was originally divided into three parts called the Tripartite Divisions, and it is important that these three divisions be maintained in all editions of the Bible. The earliest documentary evidence for these Tripartite Divisions (going back to 180 B.C.E.) tells us what the three sections were first called. This information is found in the Prologue to the apocryphal Book of Ecclesicasticus. The man Sirach wrote this book about 180 B.C.E. and his grandson composed the Prologue about 132 B.C.E. The grandson mentioned the sacred books that Sirach used in the writing of Ecclesiasticus. In three different statements he referred to the Tripartite Divisions of the Old Testament. Notice how they were designated at this early time a century and a half before Christ conducted his ministry.
(1) “The Law, the Prophets, and Others of like kind.”
(2) “The Law, the Prophets and the Other Books.”
(3) “The Law itself, and the Prophets, and the Remaining Books.”
Ecclesiasticus, Prologue 1:1
While the first two divisions are consistently called “The Law and the Prophets,” the third division was given a nondescript and nontechnical name. But note that Sirach’s grandson used the definite article “the” to describe his second and third usages. This feature shows that the readers of Ecclesiasticus were aware of a definite set of books which then comprised the third division. The Encyclopedia Americana article “Bible,” shows that the terminology imputes a recognized set of canonical books divided into three divisions.
“In the prologue to Sirach is a reference three times over to ‘the Law,’ ‘the Prophets,’ ... and the ‘Others’ with suggestions of their unique value for culture and wisdom, and of their fullness and significance. This was written about 130 B.C. It seems to betoken a complete threefold canonical collection.”
This Prologue of Sirach’s grandson is excellent documentary evidence that the Jewish people in the 2nd century before Christ had in their midst an authoritative body of books in three divisions which was considered to be the divine literature. What is interesting is that the books in these Tripartite Divisions did not include the present Book of Ecclesiasticus written by Sirach. 1 Indeed, the unanimous opinion of early Jewish scholars expressed conviction that the Old Testament scriptures had been selected and placed in an official order by Ezra the priest (with the help of Nehemiah) in the 5th century B.C.E. For rabbinic assessment up to the 17th century of our era we can quote Humphrey Prideaux:
“He [Ezra] collected together all the books of which the holy scriptures did then consist, and disposed them in their proper order, and settled the canon of scripture for his time. These books he divided into three parts: first, the Law; secondly, the Prophets; and thirdly, the Ketubim or Hagiographa, i.e. the Holy Writings; which division our Saviour himself takes notice of in Luke 24:44.”
Connection of the Old and New Testaments, pp.318–319 2
What is important to the whole issue is the acknowledgment of the official Tripartite Divisions by Christ himself. To the Christians, this witness of Christ Jesus should settle the matter of what books belong in the official Old Testament. It should further be noted that this indication of what represented the Old Testament by Christ was issued by Him after His resurrection when He proved to the world that He was indeed the Son of God and that the Father approved of His role in salvation. As a matter of fact, Christ rehearsed all the prophecies concerning Himself that were found in those Tripartite Divisions and He called them “the Scriptures.” This is Christ defining what “the Scriptures” were. His definition is the only one in the entirety of the New Testament which delineates the extent of the Old Testament in an official sense. This affirmation is in the Gospel of Luke — a Gospel intended especially for Gentiles.
It was the Gentiles who needed the Old Testament canon spelled out to them because they would not have been acquainted with it in an official sense as were the Jewish people. Such detail was not necessary for ordinary Jewish folk in the 1st century because they were aware of what books represented the scriptures. This must be the case because throughout the New Testament (at least 16 different times) the writers simply referred to the Old Testament as “the Scriptures,” always without any definition of what books comprised “the Scriptures.” The truth is, the Jews did not need further definition of the Old Testament because they were well aware by the 1st century what books represented “the Scriptures.” For the Gentiles it was different. Gentiles would have needed to know what the proper books really were. But more than this, even the apostles themselves may have wanted an authoritative statement regarding the canon of what we call the Old Testament.
The definition that Christ gave can be considered such an official statement simply because He confirmed it to the apostles after His resurrection from the dead — after He had once again assumed His glorified position with the Father. This is when Christ defined “the Scriptures” as the Tripartite Divisions in Luke 24:44–45.
“These are the words which I spoke unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the Law of Moses, and in the Prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures.”
Notice that Christ referred to the Third Division as “the Psalms.” There is no doubt that He was alluding to the complete Third Division. This third section had no technical name in the 1st century. It was either called “the Other Books,” or “the Remaining Books,” or “the Writings,” even “the Holy Writings.” It became common to identify this Third Division by the name of the book which introduced it — the Book of Psalms. There was nothing odd in using this procedure from the Jewish point of view because they customarily named the Book of Genesis by the first Hebrew word that introduced it. This was also true of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and even the Book of Lamentations. There can be little doubt that Christ was referring to the whole of the Third Division (all eleven books) when He made His reference to the Psalms.
There is a further proof of this. In Christ’s teaching about the martyrs of the Old Testament period in Luke 11:49–51, we find Him saying that the blood of all the prophets from Abel (the first martyr) to Zacharias (the last martyr in the canonical order of the Old Testament books) would be required of that generation to whom He spoke (cf. Matthew 23:35). Though in point of time the last person mentioned in the Old Testament as having been killed for his righteousness was Uriah (as recorded in Jeremiah 26:20–23), in the canonical arrangement of the books, the last martyr was Zacharias mentioned in 2 Chronicles 24:20–21. It must be understood that First and Second Chronicles in our present Bibles were reckoned as only one book by the early Hebrews, and that this book was the final one of the Third Division of the Old Testament.
This indication shows that Christ was referring to all the Old Testament martyrs from Genesis (book “A”) to Chronicles (book “Z”). This is just another biblical clue that Christ recognized the books within the Tripartite Divisions (the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms — the eleven books of the Third Division) as the official books which comprised the Old Testament. That these books, and these books only, have been the authoritative and only Jewish canon of divine documents from early times is a recognized fact by Christ Himself. They are certainly the books that make up the official Jewish canon today.
There is another early reference to the Jewish canon of the Old Testament. Near the end of the 2nd century B.C.E. it was recognized that the canon of the Old Testament was completed about three hundred years before the time of the Jewish priestly rulers called the Maccabees. A book was written about the exploits of these Maccabean kings which has been titled Second Maccabees. It states that the time of Ezra and Nehemiah is when the canonization took place. Notice 2 Maccabees chapter 2. Speaking about the Feast of Tabernacles, its author said:
“Solomon also kept the eight days. The same thing was related also in the records and memoirs about Nehemiah, that he founded a library and collected the books about the kings, and the prophets, and the works of David, and royal letters about sacred gifts.”
2 Maccabees 2:12–15
The author then related that the Holy Scriptures had been regathered after the Maccabean War (from 168 to 165 B.C.E.) and that they were again able to be read in public. Notice that this reference shows that Nehemiah built a library and collecting the sacred books. This ties in well with the teaching of Josephus that the 22 books of the Old Testament were brought together and canonized in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. 3 The library of Nehemiah (who was a high government official in the Persian Empire) could easily account for the mention of many ancient historical works in the Book of Chronicles (which we will refer to later). The last book of the Old Testament (the Book of Chronicles) describes events which dovetail well with the historical environment during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. There were, however, editorial remarks recorded in the Book of Chronicles (genealogical records, etc.) until the time of Alexander the Great (c. 330 B.C.E.).
Let us now notice a point made in Second Maccabees about the canonization of the Old Testament. It said the literary works of “the kings, and the prophets” were gathered together in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. This could well be a reference to the Prophets (the second) Division of the Tripartite arrangement of the Old Testament. This is because the books about the “Kings” (our present books of Samuel and Kings) are immediately followed in the canonical order by the Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel), then come the twelve Minor Prophets. This is exactly the order that we find recorded in Second Maccabees.
But there is more. Second Maccabees then states that those “kings and prophets” were followed by “the works of David.” Again, this is the precise order of the Jewish canon because the Third Division of the Tripartite arrangement begins with “the Psalms of David.” Recall that Christ himself recognized the Third Division of the Jewish canon as beginning with the Book of Psalms (Luke 24:44–45).
There is even more in the reference in Second Maccabees. This work does not terminate its account with “the works of David” (the Psalms). It continues by stating that the following books were “the royal letters.” In the biblical canon maintained by the official Jewish authorities, all the rest of the books in the Third Division were indeed “royal” or “government” documents just as the introductory Book of Psalms itself was “royal” in origin. This fact has not been noticed by most people, but look at the books in the Third Division. They all have the theme of “royalty” running through them just as Second Maccabees records. Notice this matter carefully.
The Book of Psalms (the first book) is a book authored
Thus the Book of Psalms which introduces the Third Division is a book which has royal persons as authors, or it presents themes which concern the kingdom of Judah, Israel, and the kingdom of God.
The royal Book of Psalms, however, is followed by the Book of Proverbs. It also has a royal theme as its subject matter. Note that this book was authored primarily by King Solomon, with a section devised for King Hezekiah (chapters 25 to 29 inclusively), and a section for Agur the King of Massa (chapter 30) and finally a section for King Lemuel (chapter 31). The whole of Proverbs is a “royal document” as Second Maccabees describes the books positioned after those of the Prophets.
But the Third Division does not stop there in showing a royal theme. In the canonical order of the Old Testament books, the Book of Job follows Proverbs. Job was described as a king and represented royalty.
“I [Job] chose out their way, and sat chief, and dwelt as a king in the army, as one that comforteth the mourners.”
The Book of Ruth comes next. It is manifestly a work about the Queen Mother Ruth and the early ancestry of King David. It is a royal book which gives the genealogical history of King David.
Then follows the Book of Lamentations. This was written by the prophet Jeremiah for, as we will see later, King Josiah of Judah. It also has as its theme the destruction of the city of Jerusalem which is described in Lamentations 3:51 as a “Mother City” with daughters (that is, it was the “Queen City of Israel”). It is in this regard a “royal book.”
Then we have Ecclesiastes which was traditionally composed by King Solomon. After that, in the canonical order, is the Book of Esther. She was Queen of Persia (again, there is a clear royalty indication).
Following Esther is Daniel. This book is one of “royal” character. Not only does it discuss at length the history of royal rulership from the time of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon until the kingdom of God appears on earth, but it was written by Daniel who was of royal Davidic stock. Daniel was “of the King’s seed, and of the princes” (Daniel 1:3).
The next book in order in the Third Division was that of Ezra (who was the person responsible for reestablishing the official government of God in Jerusalem). With him was Nehemiah who may have been of Davidic blood. 4 It should also be understood that in the original Jewish numbering of the Old Testament books, the present books that we number as two (Ezra and Nehemiah) were always reckoned as one by the Jewish authorities. Thus, the predominant person who put into action the affairs of state for the government of Judah after the Babylonian Captivity was Nehemiah. He was probably of royal ancestry and responsible, so said Second Maccabees, for collecting the books for his library and selecting a divine body of books for posterity.
The last book of the Third Division was that of Chronicles. It takes little study to see that this book focuses on the establishment of Jerusalem and the family of David as the legitimate rulers for the divine government on earth. It is indeed a royal book too.
Thus, all the books of the Third Division (which commenced with the Psalms) were royal books, or, as Second Maccabees called them, “the royal letters.” With this information in mind, it can be seen that by 100 B.C.E., when Second Maccabees was written, the Old Testament was already canonized and in the exact order maintained by the Jews today, and also as authorized by Christ in Luke 24:44–45. Christ called the Third Division “the Psalms” because that book introduced the eleven books of the Third Division.
The use of introductory books or even of single words to describe biblical divisions or sections was common by the Jews. 5 This practice of using introductory words as titles of whole sections or even divisions of literary works was well known in early times. When the Nag Hammadi Library of late antiquity was discovered in 1945, it was soon found that the introductory words of a work gave the whole composition its title. Prof. Frederik Wisse made this comment: “It is not unusual for the opening words of a tractate to function as the title for the whole tractate.” 6 So it was with the Third Division of the Old Testament.
This designation was also followed by the Jewish scholar Philo Judaeus who lived in the time of Christ. He regarded the Jewish canon as “the laws, and oracles that have come through the prophets, also with the hymns (psalms) and the other books.” 7 This later indication of Philo (the hymns and other books) is a reference to the Tripartite Divisions and is similar to the statements in Second Maccabees and the Prologue to Ecclesiasticus by Sirach.
The Apostolic Constitutions was a document written about 200 C.E. It purports to give some of the original teachings of the apostles. In recording these matters, the work tried to bring in Old Testament authority for some of its claims. In doing so, it inadvertently confirms the commonly understood order of the books and Tripartite Divisions of the canon. It states that the Old Testament was composed of “the books of the Law, of the Kings, with the Prophets,” and “the hymns of David.” 8 It is important to note that the Third Division is again called “the Hymns,” just as Second Maccabees and Philo identify them. Such a description was a normal variant of the name “the Psalms” Christ used in Luke 24:44–45. Ancient literary usage shows this was common among writers and librarians.
In regard to the Tripartite Divisions of the original Hebrew canon, attention should be paid to these two Targums. In the 1st century before Christ, many common people of Judaea spoke an Aramaic dialect which had become popular among the Jews while they resided in Babylon. Aramaic was akin to the Hebrew in many ways, but it still represented a different language. Even Ezra had to interpret the intent of the original Hebrew of the early Old Testament because the Jews had forgotten the Hebrew while in Babylon (Nehemiah 8:1–8). From the time of Ezra onwards, it became common to make Aramaic paraphrases of the Old Testament. These works are called Targums. Near the time of Christ (and soon afterward) there were two Targums which reached a type of official status among the Jews. These were the Targum of the Law by Onkelos, and the Targum of the Prophets by Jonathan.
The Talmud reveals that these two Targums were even used in synagogue services. And while the first two sections of the Tripartite Divisions were recognized as proper books to be read in synagogue services, the Third Division (which existed at the time) was not permitted to be paraphrased (so the story goes) because of a divine message against it. 9 Though the Third Division was not at first paraphrased, this is still a testimony that that particular section of the Scriptures was already recognized as inspired and part of the canon by the time of Christ.
And as far as the Talmud itself is concerned, it clearly supports the Tripartite Divisions as representing the official canon. Since the 5th century, the Jews have had a special name for the Old Testament. They call it the Tanak. This term is a manufactured word derived from the first letters of the titles of the threefold divisions. The Law (the first five books) was known as the Torah. The Prophets Division was called the Nevi’im. And the Psalms (or Writings) Division was known as the Ketuvim in referring to these three divisions, the Jewish authorities in the time of the Talmud took the initial letters of the three titles (i.e. T, N, K) and formed the word Tanak. The Jews even today use this word to refer to the Old Testament canon just as Christians commonly use the word “Bible.”
This practice shows Jewish steadfastness in maintaining the Tripartite Divisions of the Old Testament which tradition and the early records show was handed down from the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. And since we have the express testimony of Christ himself that “the Scriptures” represented “The Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms” (the Third Division, Luke 24:44–45), it seems odd that any Christian today would question the legitimacy of its official character. Should not Christ’s appraisal be sufficient for Christian believers?
It is my belief that these ancient divisions ought to be retained in all versions of the Bible today. When this is done we will be afforded a better understanding of the Bible
1 Remember not to confuse this later book called Ecclesiasticus with the canonical book Ecclesiastes which was included in the third division of the Old Testament.
2 Humphrey Prideaux, Connection of the Old and New Testaments, vol. I. (London: 1858).
3 Josephus, Contra Apion, 1.8 ¶¶38–46.
4 Cf. Nehemiah 6:6–7 where it states the Jews wanted to make him king; and only those of Davidic ancestry could then legally become king in the biblical sense.
5 See Mishnah, Taanith 4.3; Megillah 2:3; 3:4–6; 4:10.
6 Frederik Wisse, The Nag Hammadi Library, p. 394.
7 “Contemplative Life,” 3.25, from The Works of Philo Judaeus. Philo was a contemporary of Josephus.
8 Constitutions of the Holy Apostles (Didascalia Apostolorum), 1.2.5.
9 Megillah 3a, The Babylonian Talmud.
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