“The laying-up of something in the Temple had the effect of dedicating it to God, and so gave it an additional sanctity”

In view of the divine origin which was attributed to the Scriptures, it is not at all surprising to find them described in the literature of the intertestamental and NT periods as ‘holy’. The description is a very common one. Two of the early titles of the Pentateuch are ‘the Holy Law’ (Letter of Aristeas, Philo and Josephus) and ‘the Holy Laws’ (Philo). Similarly, the OT, in general, is given the titles ‘the Holy Scriptures’ (Philo, NT, Josephus, 1 Clement, rabbinic equivalent), ‘the Holy Books’ (1 Maccabees, Alexander Polyhistor, Philo, Josephus), ‘the Holy Records’ (Philo), ‘the Most Holy Oracles’ (Philo) and ‘A Holy Word’ (Philo, Josephus, 1 Clement). It will be seen from this that the expression ‘the Holy Law’ goes back to the second century B.C.E. (Letter of Aristeas), and ‘the Holy Books’ to the first century B.C.E. (1 Maccabees, Alexander Polyhistor); that the names are used by Palestinian writers and teachers (author of 1 Maccabees, NT writers, Josephus, rabbis) as well as by writers of the Diaspora; and that though the majority of these writers and teachers are of Pharisaic tendency, there are also Christians among them. Moreover, there is reason to think that the title ‘the Holy Scriptures’, either in its Greek or in its Semitic form, may have been used by the Essenes and the Sadducees, as well as by the pharisees and the Christians.

One of the corollaries of the holiness of the Scriptures was that they were especially suitable to be kept and used in holy places. This was recognized by the Therapeutae, whose affinities were Essene, in that they took into their ‘sanctuary’ (ίερόυ) none of the general necessities of life but only the Scriptures and other edifying books, and it was recognized by the Pharisees and Sadducees, in that they admitted no books but the scriptures and items like the Priestly and Levitical genealogies into the Jerusalem Temple. Though there the nation’s religious life, and the proper home for books publicly recognized as holy.

The laying-up of books and writings in a holy place, and, in some cases, the writing of them there, are practices very early attested in the history of Israel, and parallelled among other neighbouring peoples. The earliest Israelite examples are those concerning the tables of the Ten commandments and the Book of Tabernacle (Exod 25:16, 21; 40:20; Deut 10:1-5; 31:24-6); the record of the Sanctuary of Shechem (Josh 24:26); and Samuel’s account of the manner of the kingdom, laid up before the Lord, apparently at the sanctuary of Mizpah (1 Sam 10:25). The transference of the ark, still containing its tables, to Solomon’s Temple, when the building was dedicated (1 Kgs 8:6-9); 2 Chr 5:7-10), and the finding of the Book of the Law in the Temple in the reign of Josiah (2 Kgs 22:8; 3:2, 24; 2 Chr 34:15, 30), indicate that the custom of keeping sacred writings in the sanctuary continued in the First Temple; and the Second Temple would have been the natural location for the library of the nation’s religious records said to have been gathered together after the Exile by Nehemiah, and for that more certainly assembled after the Antiochene persecution by Judas Maccabaeus (2 Macc 2:13-15). In the first century C.E., when the Second Temple was coming to the end of its history, we have evidence, at which we shall be looking, both from Josephus and from rabbinic literature, that the Scriptures were laid up there, and also that the priestly and Levitical genealogies were compiled and kept there.

The writings laid up in the Temple and in the earlier Israelite sanctuaries were sacred either by reason of their origin or by reason of their subject-matter, or both. The tables of the Decalogue and the writings of prophets were of sacred origin. On the other hand, the ‘letters of kings about sacred gifts’ in Nehemiah’s library (2 Macc 2:13), though later embodied in the Book of Ezra (Ezra 6:3-12; 7:12-26), were evidently included there in the first place because of their subject-matter; and, in the same way, it was doubtless because of subject-matter that the Temple was reckoned the right place for the priestly and Levitical genealogies to be kept. Josephus does not, indeed, say that these genealogies were kept in the Temple, only that they were kept at Jerusalem; but they evidently were kept in the Temple, since it was there, in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, that the Sanhedrin used them to test claims to priestly ancestry; and this would explain why Josephus relates these genealogies so closely – and, at first sight, so confusingly – to the twenty-two canonical books, likewise kept in the Temple (Ag. Ap. 1:29-41).

The laying-up of something in the Temple had the effect of dedicating it to God, and so gave it an additional sanctity. The Greek verb…which Josephus, in two passages quoted below, uses of the Scriptures ‘laid up’ in the Temple, is borrowed from pagan usage, and means ‘to be laid up as a votive offering in a shrine’, ‘to be dedicated’. Once a book had been laid up in the Temple, it was available for use, as appropriate, by the officers of the Temple, the priests and Levites. The public reading of the Pentateuch in the Temple by the priests still continued in the first century, at least to some extent, and so did the singing of the Psalms there by the Levites but even in the Temple the work of teaching seems to have been largely taken over by the lay rabbis, who taught there at festivals, as they did in the synagogue on sabbaths; and the presence of the Scriptures in the Temple must consequently have become, predominantly, a sign of their sacred status, and not an accessory to their liturgical use.

Roger T. Beckwith, “Formation of the Hebrew Bible”, in Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading, and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Assen/Maastricht: Van Gorcum; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1998), 40-42.