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

Don Stewart :: How Was the Old Testament Canon of Scripture Put Together?

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How Was the Old Testament Canon of Scripture Put Together?

Are the Correct Books in the Old Testament? – Question 4

Who made the decision as to which books made up the Old Testament canon? Was it done over a long period of time, or was it decided by some council? What do we know for certain about the process? Is this an important issue?

Two Observations about the Old Testament Canon

To begin with, we need to make two observations about the Old Testament canon. They include the following:

1. It Is Important to Know Which Books Belong in the Old Testament

It is important to know which books belong in the Old Testament canon. Not only does the Old Testament comprise about three fourths of the Bible, it is the foundation upon which all of God’s divine revelation rests.

Therefore, it is of utmost importance that we know the exact extent of books that God divinely inspired and revealed to humanity.

2. The Exact Details of Their Collection Are Not Known

While it is important to know which books God revealed to humanity during the Old Testament period, the exact details as to the final completion of the Old Testament canon are not known. However, the Old Testament does provide various clues as to the manner in which the books were recognized as canonical. The best way of treating the subject is by listing the things that we know for certain with respect to the Old Testament and its authoritative contents.

There Are Things That We Know for Certain

There are a number of things that we know for certain in our quest to understand the limits of the Old Testament canon of Scripture. They include the following:

To begin with, there was a group of individuals whom the Lord sent to speak to the people. They were called, “the prophets.” The prophets were God’s designated spokesmen. When they spoke, the authority of the Lord was behind their words.

The first such prophet was Moses. Other prophets followed. In fact, from the time of Samuel, until the time of the Babylonian captivity there was an unbroken succession of these prophets that God sent to the people. Consequently, the people always had God’s witness during this period.

We also discover that, at times, the prophets wrote down some of the things that God told them to say. At other times, the messages of these divinely inspired prophets were recorded by others. The writings of the prophets, along with writings from other men, were collected. Some of the books, such as Psalms and Proverbs, were collected in stages. This collection of writings was considered to be Holy Scripture—God’s authoritative Word to humanity. They were expected to be believed and obeyed.

Finally, the list of authoritative writings was closed at a certain period of time. The people recognized when God spoke and they also recognized when God ceased sending His prophets.

The evidence for this is as follows:

1. There Was a Group of People Who Were God’s Spokesman—the Prophets

The Old Testament contains numerous references to individuals whom God chose to proclaim His Word. They are known as the prophets. These prophets were sent to inform the people about who God is, and exactly what He expected from them.

God Himself began the process of revealing His words to humanity by personally writing the Ten Commandments upon two tablets of stone. After this, He then gave His revelation through the prophets. The first such prophet was Moses. The Lord confirmed the prophetic status of Moses when He said to him:

I will raise up a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites. I will tell that prophet what to say, and he will tell the people everything I command him. (Deuteronomy 18:18 NLT)

There were others whom the Lord raised up to speak for Him. For example, the Lord raised up the prophet Jeremiah to speak His word to the people. The Bible says:

The LORD gave me a message. He said, “I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb. Before you were born I set you apart and appointed you as my spokesman to the world.” (Jeremiah 1:4-5 NLT)

There is no doubt that the Lord raised up a number of His spokesmen, or prophets, during the Old Testament period.

2. There Was an Unbroken Succession of Prophets from the Time of Samuel

Not only did the Lord raise up a group of people known as the prophets to speak to Israel, He also gave them an unbroken succession of prophets. In fact, one of the most important evidences, in determining the extent of the Old Testament canon, is the recognition of this continuous succession of prophets. As we look at the Scripture, we find that from the time of Samuel, until the time of the Babylonian captivity there was a continuous chain of prophets that appeared to the people.

We can illustrate this as follows. Scripture says the seer, or prophet, Samuel, wrote down the events of King David. We read the following in the Book of First Chronicles:

Now the acts of King David, from first to last, are written in the records of the seer Samuel, and in the records of the prophet Nathan, and in the records of the seer Gad. (1 Chronicles 29:29 NRSV)

The records of Solomon, the King who followed his father David, were recorded by the prophet Nathan as well as the prophet Ahijah. We are told that the prophet Iddo wrote about Jeroboam. The Bible says:

Everything else Solomon did while he was king is written in the records of Nathan the prophet, Ahijah the prophet from Shiloh, and Iddo the prophet who wrote about Jeroboam son of Nebat. (2 Chronicles 9:29 CEV)

In another instance, we have Shemaiah the prophet and Iddo the seer recording the events of the reign of Rehoboam, the king who followed Solomon. The Bible says:

As for the events of Rehoboam’s reign, from beginning to end, are they not written in the records of Shemaiah the prophet and of Iddo the seer that deal with genealogies? There was continual warfare between Rehoboam and Jeroboam. (2 Chronicles 12:15 NIV)

We also read in the Book of Chronicles about the events of King Jehoshaphat being recorded by Jehu; who was also a prophet. The Bible says:

The rest of the events of Jehoshaphat’s reign, from beginning to end, are recorded in The Record of Jehu Son of Hanani, which is included in The Book of the Kings of Israel. (2 Chronicles 20:34 NLT)

The acts of King Hezekiah were also faithfully recorded by Isaiah the prophet. We read the Bible saying:

Everything else Hezekiah did while he was king, including how faithful he was to the Lord, is included in the records kept by Isaiah the prophet. These are written in The History of the Kings of Judah and Israel. (2 Chronicles 32:32 CEV)

There is also the example of the deeds of King Manasseh having been recorded by God’s prophets. Scripture says:

Everything else Manasseh did while he was king, including his prayer to the Lord God and the warnings from his prophets, is written in The History of the Kings of Israel. (2 Chronicles 33:19-21 CEV)

These references illustrate the unbroken chain of prophets from before the first king in Israel until the time of the Babylonian captivity. Each writing prophet was succeeded by another. There were also prophets that were sent to the people before this period as well as after this period. This would guarantee that the people had continuous spokesmen from the Lord during the entire period in which the Old Testament was written.

3. Sometimes the Prophets Wrote Down Their Own Messages

These prophets, whom the Lord sent, would orally proclaim His message to the people. At times, they recorded their God-given messages. Apart from the writings of Moses, sixteen of the books of the Old Testament were composed by these writing prophets. Each of these writing prophets has a book that bears their name. This includes the Twelve Minor prophets as well as the four Major Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.

4. At Times, the Messages of the Prophets Were Recorded by Others

Not only did the sixteen writing prophets record their messages, at times the words which certain other prophets spoke were recorded by others. For example, the prophetic words of Elijah and Elisha are recorded in the Book of Kings. However, there is no indication that they themselves wrote the words attributed to them.

5. These Sacred Writings Were Immediately Collected and Treated as Divine: (Progressive Recognition)

These writings that were considered sacred were immediately collected by the people and treated as Holy Scripture. This process continued from the time of Moses until the end of the Old Testament period. It seems that the books of Moses were regarded as a closed collection of sacred writings when they were finished; there was nothing that was to be added to them. The fact that the writings of Moses were placed next to the Ark of the Covenant indicates a certain degree of completion. Moses wrote the whole Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, at God’s command, and the Levites laid it beside the ark. After that, it seems that every prophet who wrote a book under the leading of the Holy Spirit, deposited it publicly in the holy archives in the sacred building; this would first be in the tabernacle and then later in the temple. Therefore, the authentic text of Scripture was always available.

We do not know the exact process of how the books after Moses’ writings were recognized, collected and grouped. However, from the Old Testament, there are a number of things revealed that give us some idea of what occurred. We discover that the books were recognized as Scripture the moment they were written. In other words, the recognition of the various books was a progressive process; it did not occur at one particular time by some decision of a council, group, or an individual. We can provide the following examples:

6. The Book of Micah Was Immediately Considered to Be Scripture

An example of immediate acceptance of a divine writing can be found in the prophet Micah. Scripture says that the writings of Micah were considered authoritative by his contemporaries as well as by those who lived over one hundred years after his time. In the Book of Micah, he made the following prediction:

Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed like a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps of ruins, And the mountain of the temple like the bare hills of the forest. (Micah 3:12 NKJV)

Over one hundred years later, Jeremiah the prophet also predicted the destruction of the city of Jerusalem. There were some who considered Jeremiah’s words worthy of death. However, the people were then reminded of what the prophet Micah had said. We read the following:

Then some of the wise old men stood and spoke to the people there. They said, Think back to the days when Micah of Moresheth prophesied during the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah. He told the people of Judah, ‘This is what the LORD Almighty says: Mount Zion will be plowed like an open field; Jerusalem will be reduced to rubble! A great forest will grow on the hilltop, where the Temple now stands.’ But did King Hezekiah and the people kill him for saying this? No, they turned from their sins and worshiped the LORD. They begged him to have mercy on them. Then the LORD held back the terrible disaster he had pronounced against them. If we kill Jeremiah, who knows what will happen to us? (Jeremiah 26:17-19 NLT)

This is highly instructive. The prophecy of Micah, made over one hundred years earlier, was received by his contemporaries as being authoritative. This is in spite of its message of judgment against the nation. Then, one hundred years later, this message was cited as being what the Lord had said through the prophet Micah. This indicates that the sacred writings were immediately recognized by the people and considered sacred by those who came afterward.

7. Jeremiah’s Writings Were Immediately Received as Scripture

We find another example of this immediate acceptance of the writings of a prophet. In this case, it was Jeremiah. We read the following words from the prophet Daniel:

During the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, was studying the writings of the prophets. I learned from the word of the LORD, as recorded by Jeremiah the prophet, that Jerusalem must lie desolate for seventy years. (Daniel 9:2 NLT)

Jeremiah’s work, written some seventy-five years before Daniel, was already considered to be sacred Scripture at the time of Daniel. This again tells us that the writings of the divinely inspired prophets were immediately recognized by the people as Holy Scripture; it was not centuries after the fact.

There is something else we learn from this passage. Five hundred and fifty years before the time of Christ, we know that there were a number of books that were considered to be sacred Scripture. Daniel mentions a collection of prophets that he was reading.

Though we do not know the number of writings, or the names of the prophets, we do know that there was a collection of sacred writings at that time. This is another indication that the books were recognized as Holy Scripture when they were written. No council, or religious or non-religious body, made any decision as to which books were considered to be divinely authoritative.

8. Some of the Books Were Collected in Stages

We have hints of the collection process in certain passages in the Old Testament. For one thing, we discover that certain of the books were collected in stages. The evidence is as follows:

9. The Proverbs Were Added to Over Time

From the Book of Proverbs, we can discover that the proverbs contained in the book were collected in stages. We read:

These are other proverbs of Solomon that the officials of King Hezekiah of Judah copied. (Proverbs 25:1 NRSV)

Hezekiah’s men collected the proverbs of Solomon. This was over two hundred and fifty years after the time of Solomon. Other proverbs were added later. For example, we read of the Proverbs of a man named Agur:

The message of Agur son of Jakeh. An oracle. I am weary, O God; I am weary and worn out, O God. (Proverbs 30:1 NLT)

Later, the writings of Lemuel were added to the Proverbs. It says:

The sayings of King Lemuel-- an oracle his mother taught him. (Proverbs 31:1 NIV)

Furthermore, there are two other independent sections of Proverbs; Proverbs 22:17-24:22 and Proverbs 23:23-34. They are called the “sayings of the wise.”

Therefore, Proverbs consists of a number of collections of proverbial sayings which were written and collected at various times in history.

10. The Psalms Were Collected Over a Period of Time

We can discover something similar about the Book of Psalms. The Book of Psalms consists of five separate books. We read the following at the end of Psalm seventy-two:

This ends the prayers of David, the son of Jesse. (Psalm 72:20 CEV)

The psalms of David end at Psalm seventy-two; most of the first seventy-two Psalms came from David. After this, the psalms of others were added to the collection. Therefore, we have a progressive collection of the Psalms.

Consequently, there was an ongoing process of adding to the books that had already been composed.

11. Jeremiah’s Book May Have Been Issued in Two Editions

The fact that some of the books were later expanded can also be found with the example of Jeremiah. His writings exist in both a shorter and a longer form. The longer form is found in our present Old Testaments as well as in the traditional Hebrew text that is used to translate it into other languages. This is known as the Masoretic text.

However, the Greek version of Jeremiah, found in the Septuagint translation, as well as the Hebrew text of Jeremiah that was discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls, is about one-eighth shorter than the Hebrew Masoretic text.

One likely way of explaining this feature of his work is that Jeremiah actually composed two versions of the text. The Bible says the Lord told Jeremiah to write down His words on a scroll:

In the fourth year of the reign of Jehoiakim, son of King Josiah of Judah, the LORD spoke his word to Jeremiah. He said, “Take a scroll, and write on it everything that I have dictated to you about Israel, Judah, and all the other nations from the time I spoke to you during the reign of Josiah until today.” (Jeremiah 36:1-2 God’s Word)

We are also told in the Book of Jeremiah that his original scroll was destroyed by King Jehoiakim after he had it read aloud to him section by section. After this occurred, the Bible says the following:

Then Jeremiah took another scroll and gave it to Baruch son of Neriah, the scribe, and he wrote on it at Jeremiah’s dictation all the words of the scroll that Jehoiakim, Judah’s king, had burned in the fire. And many other words like them were added. (Jeremiah 36:32 HCSB)

The fact that the Scripture says many similar words were added may explain why we find the work of the prophet Jeremiah in two editions.

12. The Collection Was Considered to Be Holy Scripture

The collection of these sacred writings was assumed to be Holy Scripture. They were considered to have God’s divine authority behind them. The teachings found in these writings were expected to be obeyed. For example, we read in the Book of Nehemiah:

Day by day, from the first day of the festival to the last day, Ezra continued to read from the Book of God’s Teachings. The people celebrated the festival for seven days, and on the eighth day, they had a closing festival assembly in accordance with the regulations. When the Israelites assembled on the twenty-fourth day of this month, they fasted, wore sackcloth, and threw dirt on their heads. Those who were descendants of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood and confessed their sins as well as the wicked things their ancestors had done. They stood in their places, and for one-fourth of the day, [they listened as] the Book of the Teachings of the LORD their God was read, and for another fourth [of the day], they confessed their sins and worshiped the LORD their God. (Nehemiah 8:18; 9:1-3 God’s Word)

The people listened to the Word of the Lord and obeyed it.

We also learn something else from the writings of Agur; the man who added to certain of the proverbs. From him, we discover that the writings of David and Moses were considered to be sacred Scripture when he wrote. He said the following:

“I am far too stupid to be considered human. I never was wise, and I don’t understand what God is like.” Has anyone gone up to heaven and come back down? Has anyone grabbed hold of the wind? Has anyone wrapped up the sea or marked out boundaries for the earth? If you know of any who have done such things, then tell me their names and their children’s names. Everything God says is true?and it’s a shield for all who come to him for safety. Don’t change what God has said! He will correct you and show that you are a liar. (Proverbs 30:2-6 CEV)

While Agur realizes his own inadequacies, he does recognize that God spoke authoritatively through Moses and David. In verses two and three, Agur cites Psalm 18:30, a Psalm of David, as being God’s truth. In verses five and six, he cites Deuteronomy 4:2 as God’s authoritative Word. In his day, these two written works were considered to be authoritative Scripture.

13. The List of Authoritative Old Testament Writings Has Been Closed

The idea of an Old Testament canon means that there was a “closed” or “fixed” group of writings. Nothing could be added or subtracted to this list. At the time of the Maccabees, about 164 B.C., there was the recognition that it had been a long time since the people had an authoritative word from God.

We read the following in the Book of First Maccabees:

After the death of Judas, the renegades emerged in all parts of Israel; all the wrongdoers reappeared. In those days a very great famine occurred, and the country went over to their side. Bacchides chose the godless and put them in charge of the country. They made inquiry and searched for the friends of Judas, and brought them to Bacchides, who took vengeance on them and made sport of them. So there was great distress in Israel, such as had not been since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them. (1 Maccabees 9:23-27 NRSV)

This statement is consistent with what we know from other sources. The people believed that no authoritative Word from the Lord had been revealed since the time of Malachi—about 400 B.C. They knew when the Lord had spoken and they knew when He ceased speaking to them.

14. Though the Hebrew Canon Was Closed They Were Awaiting More Revelation from God

It is clear that the Old Testament canon was closed some four centuries before the time of Christ. However, this does not mean that the expectation of divine revelation was finished. To the contrary, there are a number of promises recorded in the Old Testament canon that awaited fulfillment.

For example, the Old Testament ends with the following promise:

I, the Lord, promise to send the prophet Elijah before that great and terrible day comes. He will lead children and parents to love each other more, so that when I come, I won’t bring doom to the land. (Malachi 4:5-6 CEV)

Therefore, although the Old Testament canon was closed, further revelation from God was expected at some future time.

Summary – Question 4
How Was the Old Testament Canon of Scripture Put Together?

It is important that we know which books belong in the Old Testament canon of Scripture. It is the unanimous teaching of the Bible that the Old Testament is God’s divinely inspired Word to humanity. Therefore, the exact contents are important to know.

There are many things that we do not about the formation of the Old Testament canon. However, there are a number of things that we do know. First, the Old Testament speaks of a group of people who spoke for God. They are known as the prophets. For one thousand years, there was a continuous succession of prophets from Moses until the time of the last of the writing prophets; Malachi. The prophets, from time to time, would write down their prophetic messages. At other times, their words were written down by others. These prophetic writings, along with writings from certain other men whom God designated, were collected.

From Scripture itself we have some ideas as to the collection process. We know that the people immediately recognized the writings of Moses, Micah, and Jeremiah as being divinely inspired of God. Micah’s message, though unpopular, was immediately received by the people. Daniel accepted Jeremiah’s writings as divinely inspired; this was some seventy years after Jeremiah wrote. This shows that there was a progressive recognition of the Old Testament writings. From Daniel, we also discover that there was an authoritative collection of books about five hundred and fifty years before the time of Christ.

We also find evidence that certain of the writings were collected in stages. We learn that the Psalms and the Proverbs were collected in stages. Also, Jeremiah’s work may have been produced in two different editions.

This collection of writings was considered to be God’s authoritative Word. This collection, or canon of Scripture, was considered to be a closed list. The people knew when the Lord had spoken and they also knew when He ceased speaking. However, further revelation from God was expected, seeing that the Old Testament contains a number of promises that await fulfillment.

Were All of the Books of the Old Testament Written by Prophets? ← Prior Section
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