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

Don Stewart :: What Can We Conclude about the Old Testament Canon?

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What Can We Conclude about the Old Testament Canon?

Are the Correct Books in the Old Testament? – Question 21

The subject of the canon of Scripture is of the utmost importance. Why is this so? It is important because we need to know exactly which books have been divinely inspired of God and which have not. We want to study and obey only those writings which God has given to the human race.

Therefore, after looking at the available evidence, we can conclude the following about the Old Testament canon of Scripture:

1. The Idea of a Canon Is Found in the Old Testament Itself

To begin with, the idea of an Old Testament canon, or a set number of sacred books, can be found within the writings of the Old Testament itself. While Old Testament events were still occurring, certain writings were already recognized to be divinely inspired by the people of God. For example, Moses’ writings were accepted as authoritative the moment they were written. Other writings soon followed which were also acknowledged as having been divinely inspired. These came from God?s spokesmen, the prophets, or from men whom God granted special wisdom.

These sacred writings were always kept in a holy place; first the tabernacle and then later in the official archives in the temple. This is further testimony to their worth and their unique character as the Word of God. Furthermore, the placing of a book in the temple archives was the way in which the Jews canonized a writing.

The sacred scrolls were taken from the temple when the Jews were led away captive to Babylon in 587 B.C. However, they were returned to the temple once the captivity was over. This means, that during the entire Old Testament period, the scrolls were always available for the people of Israel and Judah. We know this to be true because the Bible tells us that Daniel the prophet read a copy of the Book of Jeremiah while he was a captive in Babylon. Daniel also mentioned that he had other sacred books in his possession. Scripture also informs us that Ezra the scribe brought back the sacred writings to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity had ended.

These holy writings informed the people of Israel about a number of things. For example, from the Holy Scripture we discover who God is as well as what He is like. Furthermore, the Scriptures also told the nation of Israel about their unique place in God’s plan, as well as the responsibility they had to serve and worship Him. It is only from the Scripture that they would know these things.

Hence, the people of Israel were expected to obey the commands set forth in the writings. This includes the king himself. He was ordered to make a copy of the Law of Moses. This was to serve as a guide as to how he should rule the people. In addition, the Law of Moses was to be read to the people every seven years so that everyone would know his or her responsibility. Again, the authoritative nature of these writings was made clear to all.

Consequently, from the Old Testament itself, we know the Jewish people accepted some books as authoritative Scripture. There is no doubt about this.

2. The New Testament Recognizes a Completed Canon of Scripture

This brings us to the New Testament. The evidence shows that at the time the New Testament events occurred, the canon had been long-formed and accepted by the Jews. This is particularly true in the words of Jesus. He recognized the entire Old Testament as well as its two individual sections (the Law and the Prophets). The Law consisted of the writings of Moses while the prophets referred to all of the divinely inspired writings which were produced after the time of Moses.

Each of these sections was a well-defined collection. We know this to be true for the following reasons. Everyone agrees that the Law of Moses consisted of the five books of the Hebrew Scripture, Genesis through Deuteronomy. Therefore, it logically follows that the prophets would also have been a strictly defined group of writings with well-defined limits. Otherwise, you have the reference to the Law and the Prophets referring to one strictly defined unit, the Law, and one undetermined group of writings by an unknown number of prophets. This does not make any sense. The writings which were found in the section called “the prophets” had to have been well-known and clearly defined.

Indeed, when Jesus told the religious rulers that the Scriptures witnessed or testified to His identity as the Messiah, Jesus, as well as His enemies, must have had a limited, well-defined number of books in mind. Otherwise, the reference of Jesus to the “Scripture” as proving His identity would not make any sense. Because of the way Jesus made the claim, we know that there was no disagreement about the extent of the sacred writings.

Thus, not only did Jesus and His disciples accept the idea of a completed Old Testament canon of Scripture, the same is true with His enemies. The religious rulers debated Jesus on a number of issues; including the interpretation of the Scripture. However, the content and extent of the Old Testament Scripture was not one of the issues they debated; it was a settled matter. Never, do we find them disputing this question. There is no evidence anywhere in the New Testament that there was a debate about any of the writings which belonged as sacred Scripture. Indeed, there was no need for such a debate. The sacred scrolls were officially kept in the temple archives for all to see. Consequently, it was a settled matter.

There is further evidence. We also find from the writings of Paul, as well as the Book of Hebrews, that the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Scriptures, was a well-defined unit. Paul told Timothy that he had known the Holy Scripture since his youth. This assumes a known group of books. Paul also told Timothy that all Scripture was divinely inspired, or God-breathed. For this statement to have any real meaning, the identity of the Scripture must have been obvious.

The writer to the Hebrews compared the former revelation in the written Scripture to the final revelation of God through His Son Jesus Christ. Again, there was unanimous consensus on the issue of the existence of a body of writings called the Scripture.

Furthermore, the writer to the Hebrews noted that the prophets had spoken “long ago,” indicating that the Scripture had been complete for an extended period of time. Consequently, the teaching of the New Testament is unanimous. There was a group of writings considered to be Holy Scripture with well-known limits.

3. The Existence of the Old Testament Canon Was Confirmed by Other Historical Sources

Not only do we have the New Testament confirming the concept of a sacred group of writings known as, “the Scripture,” other historical sources confirm the existence of a completed Old Testament canon. This includes the writer of the Book of Ecclesiasticus, the prologue to the Book of Ecclesiasticus, Philo of Alexandria, first-century Jewish writer Flavius Josephus, the Talmud, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the testimony of First and Second Maccabees, Baruch, the Ezra legend, and Fourth Maccabees. Some of this testimony comes from a time before the New Testament was composed. Thus, every source, from the time of Ben Sirach, or the Book of Ecclesiasticus, in 200 B.C. assumes the existence of a canon of Scripture.

We must also emphasize that there is no evidence within any of these writings that there was any dispute as to the existence of the canon. The issue was settled since the sacred scrolls were officially kept in the temple archives. From both 2 Maccabees and the writings of Josephus, we know that the scrolls were kept as official records in the temple in Jerusalem. This is why no Jewish sect disputed which books belonged in the canon. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes all agreed on the contents of Holy Scripture.

There is something else. From a number of these writings, we know that “inspired prophecy” ceased in some sense during the Persian period; this is the same time as to when the last books of the Old Testament were written. This is explicitly stated in the writings of Josephus as well as in the later Jewish writings found in the Talmud. The same truth is implicitly stated in Ben Sirach, First Maccabees, and Second Esdras. The New Testament also implicitly states that no inspired Word from the Lord had been given since the last of the Old Testament prophets. This is further evidence that the canon had been closed for about four centuries before the time of Christ.

While this evidence does not reveal exactly which books belonged in the canon, or what order they were to be placed in, it does reveal the concept that a fixed canon of Scripture already existed centuries before the time of Christ.

4. The Exact Books of the Old Testament Canon Can Be Known

The Old Testament speaks of a number of writings which were considered to be sacred. The evidence from the New Testament, as well as from secular sources, informs us that a canon of Scripture existed at least two centuries before the time of Christ. The canon of Scripture was complete with well-known limits.

From examining the Old Testament, we find that each of the books claim that the Lord spoke through the writer, or that the writer was recording the words of the Lord. These writers were either prophets of God or men who had received God’s special wisdom. The only exception to this is the Book of Esther where no specific claim is made for it.

However, the Old Testament does not tell us how many of the sacred writings were considered to be God-given or if the canon was closed at a certain time in history. We have to discover this by examining other evidence. This brings us to our next point. We find that from the second century B.C. to the first century A.D. only the books of the Old Testament are cited as authoritative Scripture. Most of these books are cited many times. These citations come from different groups such as ordinary Jews, Greeks, Pharisees, Essenes, and Christians. They all give testimony to the extent of the Hebrew canon. These groups cite only the books that make up the Hebrew Scriptures as authoritative; they do not recognize the divine authority of any other writings. This is a strong witness to the idea that there was a fixed group of authoritative books.

For example, the Book of Ecclesiasticus, also known as the writings of Ben Sirach, was composed about 200 B.C. In his work, he cites almost every book of the Old Testament and recognizes it as Scripture. Only the book of Ruth, which may have been linked to the Book of Judges, was not cited or alluded to by Sirach. Furthermore, he makes a clear distinction between these writings, which are considered to be sacred, and all other writings. Therefore, a canon of Scripture existed at least two centuries before the time of Christ with well-known writings and clearly defined limits.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, also written before the New Testament era, provide further testimony as to the extent of the Old Testament. All of the books of the Old Testament, with the possible exception of Nehemiah, and with the exception of Esther, were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Although these sacred writings were found with other writings which were not part of the canon, it is only the Scriptures, or the canonical writings, in which we find commentaries written about them. The evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls is consistent with what we know from other sources. The writings of the Old Testament were looked upon differently than all other writings.

The New Testament itself cites almost every book of the Old Testament with phrases such as, “Scripture says,” “it is written,” or “God said.” Indeed, it is possible that the New Testament actually directly quotes or alludes to every book that makes up the Old Testament. It agrees exactly with Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus, as to the extent of the Old Testament.

Flavius Josephus, writing shortly after the time of Christ, makes it clear that the Holy Scriptures had been complete since the time the Persians ruled (400 B.C). He specifically stated that only twenty-two writings were deemed as divinely inspired. This fits with the testimony of Ben Sirach about the canon. These are the same writings that we find in the Old Testament today; no more, no less.

This is all the more impressive when we realize that the New Testament writers, as well as these other sources, knew of the non-canonical writings. They alluded to them, used ideas from them, and at times cited them. However, they never quoted them as Holy Scripture! We never find any using the phrase such as, “It is written,” “God says,” “Thus says the Lord,” or “Scripture says” when citing these writings. Consequently, from examining all of the evidence, we can say that a canon existed long before the time of Christ and that we know exactly which writings were part of that canon.

There is one more thing to note. The reason why we do not find any list of canonical Old Testament books, until after the New Testament era, is because there was no need for any such list. As long as the temple of Jerusalem was still standing, with the sacred Scriptures housed in the temple archives, there was no such need for a list of the Holy Scripture. It was only after the city of Jerusalem and the temple were both destroyed, and the holy writings carried away, that a need for a list arose. Once there was no central place where the sacred writings were housed, the people needed to know, through other means, which writings were God-given and which were not.

5. No Other Books Qualify for the Old Testament Canon

This brings us to our last point. There is no evidence that the books of the Old Testament Apocrypha belong in Holy Scripture. While these writings are accepted as authoritative Scripture by the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian communities, the various reasons that have been given for their inclusion are not convincing. Though they may offer some insights into the history between the testaments, they provide no evidence of divine inspiration as is true with the Old Testament books. We will look at this issue in great detail in our section on the Old Testament Apocrypha.

Consequently, when all the evidence is considered, we find that the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament are clearly the only books that were considered to be divinely inspired by God. The Old Testament canon began with the books of Moses and was completed with the writings of the last of the prophets around 400 B.C. After that time, no divinely inspired writings were given by God to the human race.

Therefore, we can rightly conclude that we know that an Old Testament canon existed and that we also know exactly which books were included in the Old Testament canon.

Summary – Question 21
What Can We Conclude about the Old Testament Canon?

While there are a number of things we do not know about how we got the thirty-nine books that make up the Old Testament, there are a number of things that we do know. We know that the people recognized the divine writings during the thousand year period in which the books were written; there was a progressive recognition of Scripture. They also recognized when prophecy ceased. No group of people, or council, religious or non-religious, made the decisions concerning which books were divinely given.

By the time of Jesus, the Old Testament writings were considered the authoritative Word of God ? they were also believed to have been completed for a long time. The evidence is that the Hebrew Scriptures were completed around the time of Nehemiah in 400 B.C. The Old Testament, the New Testament, and secular historians all confirm this. Therefore, the totality of evidence shows that the Old Testament was a completed body of literature long before the time of Christ with well-known limits.

To sum up: when all the evidence is carefully examined, we can draw a number of conclusions about the Old Testament canon as well as its exact contents. These conclusions should be held by any unbiased thinking person. There is really no real doubt as to where the evidence leads. Therefore, the believer can take comfort in these facts; nothing has been lost from the Old Testament and nothing has been added to it.

Consequently, everyone, believer and unbeliever alike, can read the Old Testament with the complete confidence that it is God’s divine Word to the human race.

Why Do the Jews and Christians Understand the Old Testament So Differently? ← Prior Section
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