What is the earliest dating we can put on the ordering of the books of the Old Testament?

I understand that there are two orderings or at least, broadly, two orderings.

One being the Tanach/Tanak/TNK ordering, (Torah-5 books of Moses, followed by Neviim-prophets (former, latter (major,minor)), followed by Ketuvim-writings).

The other the ordering being that used by the Septuagint and Vulgate. (Torah, History (pre-exile, post-exile), Prophets (major, minor), Writings)

What is the earliest usage we have for each ordering?

  • here is a useful pic i.sstatic.net/e2viD.gif though probably the septuagint was used by jews back in the day maybe even before jesus, so to describe the septuagint ordering as solely christian might not be accurate re that pic, though in modern times it is the case
    – barlop
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 8:07
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    I think this would be better in Christianity SX because no specific Bible passage is involved. Suggest you migrate it to Christianity SX.
    – user25930
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 9:57
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    This question is on topic because it concerns historical context and source criticism; the "specific Bible passage" or "particular text" is the Hebrew Bible as a whole.
    – user2672
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 10:07
  • I agree with @Keelan. On topic.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 13:24
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    Given the comment below the answer ("it's not about canonisation"), please clarify: you want the date of the TNK, exactly T.-N.-K. and on that level and nothing else matters? Please also clarify your reasoning for why you want 'canonisation' excluded (as I thought it integral for an answer?). Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 18:35

2 Answers 2


One historical piece of information that provides one limit on the date of the ordering of the "books" of the "Bible" is that originally the scriptures were written on individual "scrolls" and before that, on clay tablets. What we call a "book" did not exist until around the 1st century.

...At least in the Western world, the main alternative to the paged codex format for a long document is the continuous scroll, which was the dominant book form in the ancient world. Some codices are continuously folded like a concertina, in particular the Maya and Aztec codices, which are actually long sheets of paper or animal skin folded into pages. These do not really meet most current definitions of the "codex" form, but are so called by convention.[citation needed].

The Romans developed the form from wooden writing tablets. The gradual replacement of the scroll by the codex has been called the most important advance in book making before the invention of printing.[2] The codex transformed the shape of the book itself, and offered a form that lasted until present day (and continues to be used alongside e-paper).[3] The spread of the codex is often associated with the rise of Christianity, which adopted the format for use with the Bible early on.[4] First described by the 1st-century CE Roman poet Martial, who praised its convenient use, the codex achieved numerical parity with the scroll around 300 CE,[5] and had completely replaced it throughout what was by then a Christianized Greco-Roman world by the 6th century.[6]...

However, we can be sure that when the Jews stored their scrolls they did not just toss them in a pile so the ordering they currently use most certainly would have a thoughtful, long standing tradition. For example, there should be no doubt that the scrolls of Moses have always occupied first place and they would always be in the same order.

Beyond that I believe the history cannot be verified unless we find a photo of the shelving in which they stored the scrolls.

  • 1
    That is an interesting way of interpreting the question. I thought of 'primacy' in spiritual importance or even divinity, listing them in a specific order (while scrolls lay around 'in piles' ;) But for the actual physical spread of a physically immovable structure of texts: this is +1. TNK will not fit a single roll. Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 14:09

When TN and K were seen as 'in this order, only' is question that cannot be answered without discussing the canonisation process. Canonisation is a process with many stages of considerable fluidity. Our lack of original documents renders any definitive assertion dubious. But as close as we can get:

Since the Samaritans are the guardians of the true Tora, and the only and complete collection of the 5 books of Mose, we can conclude that around the time of the split between Samaritans and mainstream Judaism between 400 and 300 BC mainstream Judaism started to regard other writings as tora, ie scripture, which the Samaritans rejected.

For the later mainstream Jews this addition to tora – the nomos in Greek or law in English – were then 'the prophets' – giving rise to the primacy of 'the law' (T) to the additions, or the rendering of "the law and the prophets" as we know it from the New Testament.

But what is "tora" in the first place? It is not just 'the Tora', not "a law" but also a teaching, and holy scripture. Looking at the texts found at Qumran, we have to conclude that the five books were already in the canon, but not the canon, and other writings were not considered Tora but tora. Never first place though.

The very fact that "the law and the prophets" is a standing expression in the New Testament indicates this two-partite organisation to be contemporary to the time of Jesus.

At roughly the same time we again look at Qumran (4Q397,10) and find the early formula of "the books of Mose, the prophets and David. Equally in Lukas 24:44 we find "the law of Mose, the prophets and the psalms".

Extra-biblical we see that Philo of Alexandria writes (De vita contemplativa 3,25) and states that besides the law and the prophecies there are other writings that can be used to perfect the believes and that are useful for the believer.

That all points into the direction that the Tora always had primacy and that N and finally K became to be regraded as 'also tora' or 'the canon of Jewish scripture' in that timeframe.

Note that this is not discussiong what exactly these books are, nor what exact form they had, that formed this 'canon'. But note the discrepancy between Septuagint, Old Testament (of various colours) and the statement on pure number of books contained in such a canon as stated by Josephus. -> That still wasn't really fixed at that time.

The earliest possible, but ultimately inconclusive statement we can use is

Whereas many great teachings have been given to us through the law and the prophets and the others that followed them, Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach, RSV

This is conventionally dated at 132 BC. That date is not fixed for the text we have today, and it is not ultimately clear what "the others that followed" really means. But the context for the idea or a tripartite organisation is there.

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