T cell development is guided by a complex set of transcription factors that act recursively, in different combinations, at each of the developmental choice points from T-lineage specification to peripheral T cell specialization. This review describes the modes of action of the major T-lineage-defining transcription factors and the signal pathways that activate them during intrathymic differentiation from pluripotent precursors. Roles of Notch and its effector RBPSuh (CSL), GATA-3, E2A/HEB and Id proteins, c-Myb, TCF-1, and members of the Runx, Ets, and Ikaros families are critical. Less known transcription factors that are newly recognized as being required for T cell development at particular checkpoints are also described. The transcriptional regulation of T cell development is contrasted with that of B cell development, in terms of their different degrees of overlap with the stem-cell program and the different roles of key transcription factors in gene regulatory networks leading to lineage commitment.