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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Are the Right Books in the Old Testament?

Don Stewart :: Did the New Testament Recognize a Completed Old Testament Canon of Scripture?

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Did the New Testament Recognize a Completed Old Testament Canon of Scripture?

Are the Correct Books in the Old Testament? – Question 18

While it is not specifically stated in the New Testament that the Old Testament canon had been closed, there is sufficient evidence to believe that this was the case. As we look at all the facts, we find that those who lived in the New Testament period recognized a completed Old Testament canon of Scripture that corresponds to the present canon held by Jews and Protestants. This can be seen in a number of ways.

1. The Old Testament, the Law and the Prophets, Was Cited as Authoritative Scripture

From an examination of the four Gospels, we find that Jesus spoke of the Old Testament Scripture as being absolutely authoritative. It was the final word on every issue which it addressed. Jesus often appealed to the Old Testament as the ultimate authority. In answering a question about divorce, He said the following to the religious rulers:

Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female. (Matthew 19:4 ESV)

The answer to their question would be found in the reading of the Scripture.

On another occasion, Jesus said to the Sadducees that they did not really know the “Scripture.” Matthew records the following:

Jesus replied, “Your problem is that you don’t know the Scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God.” (Matthew 22:29 NLT)

In John’s gospel, we read the following words of Jesus:

“It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me.” (John 6:45 NKJV)

These writings held absolute authority for Jesus. Of this, there is no doubt.

He also declared that everything which was written in the Law and the Prophets, a reference that includes all of the Old Testament, was going to be fulfilled. Jesus said:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place. (Matthew 5:17-18 NET)

To Jesus, when the Scripture spoke, God spoke.

2. The Scripture Was Authoritative for Paul

The Apostle Paul also testified to the existence of a written Scripture that had God’s divine authority behind it. He wrote the following to the Romans:

From Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God that he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures. (Romans 1:1-2 NET)

Thus, all the evidence points to the existence of a fixed group of writings called the Scripture. It consisted of a clear, well-defined set of writings; the five books of Moses and the other writings known as “the Prophets.”

We should note that the only exception to this designation of “Law and Prophets” is a statement made by Jesus on the day of His resurrection. He said:

“These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44-45 HCSB)

On this occasion, the Psalms were included as a separate group of writings from the Prophets. However, the usual designation was the Law and the Prophets.

3. Jesus Contrasted the Scriptures with Human Tradition

In addition, we find that Jesus made a distinction between the traditions of the people and the Scripture. He rejected the Jewish tradition of the ceremonial washing of the hands before eating. In doing so, He appealed to the Scriptures.

We read about this episode in Mark’s gospel. He recorded it as follows:

Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?” He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Mark 7:6-7 NKJV)

Here the Lord Jesus contrasts the human traditions with the Scripture; He did not consider unwritten tradition as having the same authority as written Scripture.

4. According to Jesus, the Scriptures Were Complete

Furthermore, Jesus also indicated the Old Testament Scripture was complete. He said to the religious rulers:

You search the Scriptures because you believe they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! (John 5:39 NLT)

The inference is that there was a completed body of written work, the Scriptures, that was divinely authoritative. These written works were so well-known that Jesus could refer to them as a group ? the Scriptures. Moreover, Jesus claimed that these books testify about Him; they are a legal witness to His identity as the Messiah.

For Jesus’ statement to be meaningful, there had to have been a certain well-known number of books labeled as Scripture. Jesus was not saying, or implying, that any and every book which the Jews read or studied would testify of Him; it was only the sacred Scriptures! The fact that Jesus referred to these writings as a witness to Him shows that He, and the religious rulers, agreed upon what constituted Scripture. Otherwise, the statement would have been meaningless because no one would be able to identify which books, out of all the ones they possessed, testify to Him.

Thus, Jesus’ statement, while not telling us specifically which books made up the canon of Scripture, does clearly show us that such a well-defined number of books existed.

5. Paul Spoke of a Completed Scripture

We also find the Apostle Paul speaking of a completed canon of Scripture. He wrote the following to Timothy:

And that from childhood you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:15-17 HCSB)

Paul assumes that Timothy has known from childhood that a specific set of holy books existed; the Scriptures. Furthermore, these books are divinely inspired by God. Since Paul said that “all Scripture” was “divinely inspired” or “God-breathed,” for this statement to be meaningful, he must have had a specific group of writings in mind. Otherwise, the statement would be meaningless.

In another place, Paul spoke of an “old” covenant, or “old” testament. He wrote:

But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. (2 Corinthians 3:14 NRSV)

This passage says that the Jews read the Scriptures of the Old Testament, or Old Covenant. Again, this assumes that there was a completed Old Testament Scripture.

6. The Writer to the Hebrews Spoke of a Completed Scripture

We have another testimony to a completed Scripture from the New Testament; from the writer to the Hebrews. He wrote:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors at many different times and in many different ways through the prophets. In these last days he has spoken to us through his Son. God made his Son responsible for everything. His Son is the one through whom God made the universe. (Hebrews 1:1-2 God’s Word)

Again, it is clear that the writers of the New Testament saw the Old Testament as a completed group of writings. In this instance, the writer to the Hebrews said the prophets spoke long ago. This implies that there had been no new revelation for a long time.

7. Almost Every Book of the Old Testament Is Quoted as Scripture

With the exception of Ezra/Nehemiah and Esther, every book of the Old Testament is quoted by the New Testament writers. This is another indication that the extent of the Hebrew canon was exactly the same among the Christians as it was among the Jews.

8. There Is No Evidence That Christians Wanted to Reject Any of the Old Testament

Not only do we have the positive evidence of the New Testament figures quoting the Old Testament as authoritative, we also find nothing in their preaching or teaching which would suggest the Old Testament was incompatible with the Christian faith. On the contrary, we find Paul reasoning with the Jews “from the Scriptures” concerning Jesus.

In the Book of Acts, we read the following:

And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.” (Acts 17:2-3 NRSV)

Paul also said the Old Testament was written to instruct and encourage Christians. He wrote to the Corinthians:

Now these things happened to them as examples, and they were written as a warning to us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. (1 Corinthians 10:11 HCSB)

Paul also wrote to the church at Rome about the lessons that can be learned from the Old Testament. He said:

For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.” For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:3-6 NKJV)

Therefore, for the early Christians, the Hebrew Scriptures were their only written Scripture - there was nothing else that was authoritative for them. While we find that the Christians disagreed with Jews with respect to some of the Jewish traditions, they agreed with them when it came to the existence and the authority of the Scripture. While they debated about certain practices, there was no debate about the Scripture.

9. The Christians Disagreed with the Jewish Traditions, Not the Scripture

It is also important to note that in all of the charges Jesus made against the religious rulers of His day. He never accused them of adding or taking away from the Scriptures. While they debated on various spiritual issues, there is no record of any debate on the extent of the canon of Scripture. They were all agreed as to the authority and extent of the Old Testament canon. To all of them, the issue of the canon had been settled. The books that are found in the Old Testament were accepted by Jesus, as well as by His enemies.

10. When Writings Outside the Old Testament Are Cited, They Are Never Called Scripture

Another important point to note is how the New Testament cited writings apart from the Hebrew Scriptures. We find Paul citing heathen poets in the Book of Acts, First Corinthians, and Titus. Jude may have cited First Enoch in his letter. The evidence is as follows:

Paul cited the writer Cleanthes before a crowd in Athens. He said:

As also some of your own poets have said, “For we are also His offspring.” (Acts 17:28 NKJV)

He quoted the writer Menander when he wrote to the Corinthians. It reads as follows:

Do not be deceived: “Evil company corrupts good habits.” (1 Corinthians 15:33 NKJV)

When Paul wrote to Titus, he cited Epimenides. He wrote:

One of them, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” (Titus 1:12 NKJV)

Jude may have cited the book of First Enoch. We read the following in his letter:

Now Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men also, saying, “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of His saints, to execute judgment on all, to convict all who are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have committed in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.” (Jude 14-15 NKJV)

When these works that were outside of the Old Testament canon were cited, they are not called “Scripture.” Neither are they introduced with such phrases as “God said,” “the Holy Spirit said,” or “it is written.”

Therefore, we learn two important truths: First, the writers of the New Testament were aware of other written works apart from the Old Testament Scripture. However, though they knew of them, alluded to them, and perhaps quoted from them, they never cited them as divinely authoritative Scripture. This again demonstrates the distinction between the Scriptures and all other writings.

11. New Divinely Inspired Writings Were Not to Be Added to the Old Testament

The earliest Christians believed that God was speaking to His people in the New Testament era. However, they did not believe that any prophetic writings were to be added to the Old Testament. The New Testament makes a clear distinction between the writings found in the Old Testament canon and the newer revelation which Christians preserved and eventually became part of a “New” Testament. Peter wrote:

Dear friends, this is the second letter I’m writing to you. In both letters I’m trying to refresh your memory. I want you to remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and what the Lord and Savior commanded you through your apostles. (2 Peter 3:1-2 God’s Word)

Here, Peter recognizes the distinction between the Old Testament prophets and the words of the Lord Jesus. He also wrote:

Think of our Lord’s patience as an opportunity [for us] to be saved. This is what our dear brother Paul wrote to you about, using the wisdom God gave him. He talks about this subject in all his letters. Some things in his letters are hard to understand. Ignorant people and people who aren’t sure of what they believe distort what Paul says in his letters the same way they distort the rest of the Scriptures. These people will be destroyed. (2 Peter 3:15-16 God’s Word)

Peter recognizes the distinction between Paul’s letters, which he considers as Scripture and the Old Testament writings; they are two distinct groups.

This is a further testimony that the New Testament writers, while acknowledging that God was giving the world more divinely inspired written Scripture, kept the new sacred writings separate from the old.

12. The Exact Extent of the Hebrew Scripture Is Possibly Given by Jesus

Finally, it is possible that Jesus declared the extent of the Old Testament. He made the following statement to the religious leaders of His day:

I will send you prophets and wise men and teachers of religious law. You will kill some by crucifixion and whip others in your synagogues, chasing them from city to city. As a result, you will become guilty of murdering all the godly people from righteous Abel to Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered in the Temple between the altar and the sanctuary. (Matthew 23:34-35 NLT)

Some have argued that this statement clearly defined what Jesus viewed as the Old Testament canon?the same Old Testament as we have in the Protestant English Bible. The following reasons are given.

Abel Was the First Martyr

Abel was the first person murdered that the Scripture records. The Bible says:

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. (Genesis 4:8 NIV)

The death of Abel, the first martyr, is recorded in Genesis.

Zechariah Was the Last Person Murdered in the Hebrew Reckoning

Zechariah was the last person murdered in the Old Testament order of books, according to the way the Jews listed the books. His death is recorded in Chronicles. It says:

Then the Spirit of God came upon Zechariah son of Jehoiada the priest. He stood before the people and said, “This is what God says: ‘Why do you disobey the LORD’s commands? You will not prosper. Because you have forsaken the LORD, he has forsaken you.’” But they plotted against him, and by order of the king they stoned him to death in the courtyard of the LORD’s temple. (2 Chronicles 24:20,21 NIV)

The Zechariah that Jesus referred to is the one mentioned in 2 Chronicles 24:21. Second Chronicles is the last book in the Hebrew order. However, Zechariah was not the last prophet to be murdered in Old Testament history. That person was Uriah son of Shemaiah. His murder is recorded in the Book of Jeremiah:

There was another man who prophesied in the name of the Lord, Uriah the son of Shemaiah from Kiriath-jearim. He prophesied against this city and against this land in words like those of Jeremiah. And when King Jehoiakim, with all his warriors and all the officials, heard his words, the king sought to put him to death. But when Uriah heard of it, he was afraid and fled and escaped to Egypt. Then King Jehoiakim sent to Egypt certain men, Elnathan the son of Achbor and others with him, and they took Uriah from Egypt and brought him to King Jehoiakim, who struck him down with the sword and dumped his dead body into the burial place of the common people. (Jeremiah 26:20-23 ESV)

Historically, this took place after the murder of Zechariah. While Zechariah was not the last Old Testament prophet to be martyred, he is the last prophet that was martyred in the order that the books were listed. Consequently, when Jesus mentioned the murders of Abel to Zechariah, it would be like saying “from Genesis to Chronicles.” Genesis to Chronicles was the extent of the Old Testament.

It is also argued that in Matthew 24:35, Jesus refers to the first section of the Hebrew canon, the Law, and the last section of the Hebrew canon, the Writings. By implication He would also have accepted the second section, the Prophets. Therefore, we have Jesus’ testimony to the threefold division to the Hebrew Scriptures as well as its content.

Response to This Argument

While this line of argumentation is possible, it is not certain that there was a clear threefold division of the Hebrew Scriptures at the time of Christ or that Second Chronicles was the last book in the Hebrew order at that time. The threefold division into Law, Prophets, and Writings may have occurred after the time of Christ and the writing of the New Testament. Therefore, the mention of the death of Zechariah was not to give us the limit of the Old Testament Scripture.

Again, we have the question as to whether there was a clearly defined threefold division of the Hebrew Scriptures at the time of Christ. While the canon was closed, and the extent known to everyone, it is not certain as to whether the Scriptures were placed into any clearly defined divisions except for the designation of the Law and the Prophets. The Law would have consisted of the writings of Moses, while the Prophets referred to everything else. Therefore, to argue that Jesus gave the extent of the Old Testament Scripture in this passage, while possible, may not be that likely.

However, what we do know for certain is that all of the evidence strongly suggests that Jesus, His disciples, and all of the New Testament writers, accepted the same fixed or closed canon of Scripture as the Jews.

Summary – Question 18
Did the New Testament Recognize a Completed Old Testament Canon of Scripture?

From New Testament evidence, we have the concept of a completed body of sacred writings that we term the “Old Testament.”

For one thing, the New Testament cited the Old Testament as authoritative Scripture. Quoting the Scripture on a particular subject would settle any argument. In addition, we find Jesus denouncing human traditions when it conflicted with that which was written. Again, the authority of the Scripture was emphasized.

There is also evidence that the Scriptures were a complete, well-known, set of writings. The New Testament usually divides the Old Testament writings into two groups; the Law and the Prophets. The Law consisted of the Books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy, while the Prophets referred to everything else. The only exception to this designation was the words of Jesus in Luke 24:44 where He referred to the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms. Here, the Psalms seems to be placed in its own section. Whatever the case may be, the Hebrew Scriptures were recognized as being complete.

This is further evidenced by the fact that we find that Jesus disputed with the Jewish religious leaders over their traditions but not over the extent of Scripture. There was no debate about which books were sacred and which were not. Indeed, when Jesus said that the Scriptures testified or witnessed to Him, He must have been referring to a distinct set of writings which all acknowledged. Otherwise His claim would have been without meaning.

The Apostle Paul also testified to a well-known set of writings as did the writer to the Hebrews. They acknowledged the existence of a set of writings known as Scripture.

We also find that the New Testament writers, while realizing that God had given humanity further written revelation, kept the Old Testament Scriptures separate from these new writings. They never confused the two sets of sacred documents.

Some people argue that Jesus actually set the limits to this group of writings. From His testimony found in Matthew 23:34-36, and the parallel passage in Luke 11:49-51, it is contended that we discover the limits of the Old Testament at that time. Genesis was the first book and Chronicles was the last. This agrees with the order of the books that was found in later Jewish writings; the Talmud.

However, this may have not been the case. It is possible that this division into three sections, with Chronicles being the last book, may not have been organized until after the time of Jesus and the writing of the New Testament. There is not enough evidence to be certain that Jesus was attempting to give us the limits of the Old Testament canon with His statement.

What we do know for certain is this: the totality of the evidence indicates that the New Testament writers recognized a canon of Scripture which was identical with the Hebrew canon; they recognized the same books as divinely inspired. Consequently, the New Testament does indeed testify to a completed Old Testament canon of Scripture.

Does the New Testament Quote the Old Testament as Authoritative Scripture? ← Prior Section
Apart from the New Testament, What Other Historical Evidence Exists for the Completed Old Testament Canon? Next Section →
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