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

Don Stewart :: When, by Whom, and Where Were the Books of the Old Testament Finally Collected?

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When, by Whom, and Where Were the Books of the Old Testament Finally Collected?

Are the Correct Books in the Old Testament? – Question 7

There is strong evidence that the Hebrew Scripture, the Old Testament, was completed about 400 B.C. At this particular time in history, God stopped speaking to His people through the prophets. This being the case, do we know when, by whom, and where the books of the Old Testament were finally collected? The answer is, “No.” Nothing is said about it. We do not know who collected the sacred writings, when they were collected, or where they were collected.

However, there are a number of things that we can be reasonably certain about. They include the following:

1. The Sacred Writings Were Always Placed in the Temple

The Bible says that the sacred writings were to be kept next to the Ark of the Covenant. We read the following in Deuteronomy:

The Lord told Joshua, “Be brave and strong! I will help you lead the people of Israel into the land that I have promised them.” Moses wrote down all these laws and teachings in a book, then he went to the Levites who carried the sacred chest and said: This is The Book of God’s Law. Keep it beside the sacred chest that holds the agreement the Lord your God made with Israel. This book is proof that you know what the Lord wants you to do. (Deuteronomy 31:24-26 CEV)

This means they were first kept in the Tabernacle, or Tent of Meeting, and then later in the Temple.

2. The Book of the Law Was Found in the Temple

The fact that the sacred writings were kept in the temple is consistent with the recorded episode of Hilkiah discovering the Book of the Law in the temple during the reign of King Josiah (630 B.C.). The Bible says the following:

Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the LORD.” He gave it to Shaphan. (2 Chronicles 34:15 NIV)

The Law was kept where it was supposed to be; in the temple.

3. The Scriptures Were Taken to Babylon

The fact that the Scriptures were always kept in the Temple in Jerusalem is further confirmed by the prophet Daniel. Daniel had a copy of the writings of Jeremiah with him while he was captive in Babylon. He also mentions some other “books” that were in his possession. The Book of Daniel says:

It was the first year of the reign of Darius the Mede, the son of Ahasuerus, who became king of the Babylonians. 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 9:1-2 NLT)

The Bible says that King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took all the sacred items from the temple when he burned it, as well as destroying the city of Jerusalem. This occurred in the year 587 B.C. The sacred Scripture would have been among the items taken to Babylon. This explains why Daniel had a copy of the Book of Jeremiah as well as the other holy writings.

4. The Scriptures Were Returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian Captivity

When the Jews returned from captivity, the sacred Scriptures would have returned with them. The scribe Ezra was sent to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel to gather together the canonical writings. Later in their history, Ezra read the Scripture to the people that had returned to the city of Jerusalem. The Bible says:

They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read. (Nehemiah 8:8 NIV)

The fact that the Law of Moses was read to the people upon their return from Babylon gives evidence that the Scriptures were not destroyed. Instead, they were returned to the Jews. Therefore, the sacred Scriptures were not lost though they were taken from the temple, transported to Babylon, and then brought back to Jerusalem.

5. The Old Testament Scripture May Have Been Collected by Ezra

One of the possible solutions with respect to the collection of the Old Testament canon has to do with Ezra and the men of the Great Synagogue.

In the Talmud, an ancient collection of Jewish traditions, there is a consistent theme that Ezra, and the men of the Great Synagogue, were the ones who collected the sacred writings. In these traditions, Ezra is given a position second only to Moses.

For example, we read the following in the Talmud:

Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi received it [the tradition of Moses] from the prophets. The men of the Great Synagogue received it from Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. (Aboth of Rabbi Nathan 1.3)

We are told in the Scripture that Ezra had the Law of God in his hand when he went on his mission to the city of Jerusalem. The Bible records the King saying:

You are authorized by the king and his seven advisors to inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem, according to the law of your God which is in your possession. (Ezra 7:14 NIV)

This also shows the Scriptures were still in the possession of the people at this time; they were not destroyed. According to Jewish tradition, prophecy ceased in Israel around the year 400 B.C. This is the same time as the death of the last of the Old Testament prophets; Malachi.

6. Antiochus IV Destroyed Copies of Scripture (Second Century B.C.)

In the second century B.C., the Syrian ruler Antiochus IV destroyed many copies of the Scriptures. He declared that those who possessed a copy would be punished by death. We read about this in First Maccabees. It says:

The books of the law that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire. Anyone found possessing the book of the covenant, or anyone who adhered to the law, was condemned to death by decree of the king. (1 Maccabees 1:56,57 NRSV)

Antiochus, like many others, attempted to destroy the Holy Scripture. His efforts, however, did not succeed.

7. Judas Maccabeus Collected the Sacred Books (Second Century B.C.)

From the apocryphal book of Second Maccabees, we discover that Antiochus did not destroy all the copies of the Scripture; other copies of the sacred scrolls still existed. After defeating Antiochus IV, Judas Maccabaeus collected the sacred books. We read the following in Second Maccabees:

The same things are reported in the records and in the memoirs of Nehemiah, and also that he founded a library and collected the books about the kings and prophets, and the writings of David, and letters of kings about votive offerings. In the same way Judas also collected all the books that had been lost on account of the war that had come upon us, and they are in our possession. (2 Maccabees 2:13,14 NRSV)

The fact that he collected the sacred books shows that there were a number of books that were considered holy. We are told specifically about the memoirs of Nehemiah, books about the kings and prophets, the writings of David, and the letters of kings.

According to this passage, Nehemiah had collected and kept the books that had God’s authority behind them. The statement that Nehemiah had a library indicates that the sacred books were kept with other writings.

We also find that Judas encouraged his followers from the “law and the prophets.” Second Maccabees says:

Encouraging them from the law and the prophets, and reminding them also of the struggles they had won, he made them the more eager. (2 Maccabees 15:9 NRSV)

This is another indication that he had a list of sacred books.

8. The Testimony of Josephus to the Sacred Books

First century writer Flavius Josephus tells us that the sacred writings were kept in the temple in Jerusalem before its destruction in A.D. 70. In fact, in his autobiography, we are told that the sacred scrolls were given to him by the Roman general Titus after he conquered Jerusalem in A.D 70. He also informs us that there were twenty-two books considered to be sacred Scripture. These are the same books that are presently in the Old Testament canon. In addition, Josephus says that the last writing to be recognized as divinely inspired was composed almost five hundred years before the time he wrote (A.D. 90). Again, this was the time the last Old Testament book, Malachi, was composed.

Conclusion: the Scriptures Have Been Providentially Preserved Throughout History

From the evidence which is available, there is a consistent testimony to the existence of sacred writings from the time of Moses until the time that the second temple was destroyed in the year A.D. 70. These Scriptures were continually housed in a sacred structure; first the tabernacle and then later the temple. Therefore, the people would have always been aware of the exact extent and content of the sacred writings. No one would have any doubts about which writings were divinely authoritative.

Seemingly, the only time they were removed from the tabernacle, or the temple, was during the Babylonian captivity. Yet, we are told that the Scriptures were all brought back safely to Jerusalem; nothing was lost or destroyed. Consequently, the verdict is clear: God has providentially preserved His sacred word throughout history.

Summary – Question 7
When, by Whom, and Where Were Books of the Old Testament Finally Collected?

While there are many things that we do not know about how, where, and by whom the Old Testament canon was collected, there are several things that we do know.

To begin with, the writings of Moses were kept in the tabernacle, or tent of meeting and then later in the temple. They were placed next to the Ark of the Covenant. When further writings were added, they were also kept in the tabernacle, then in the temple. Later, in the history of the nation, the Book of the Law was found in the temple. This is consistent with the practice of keeping the sacred writings next to the Ark.

We know that the sacred Scriptures were taken to Babylon when the nation went into captivity. Daniel the prophet had a copy of the Scriptures when he was captive in Babylon. In fact, he had a collection of books with him; including that of the prophet Jeremiah.

We also know that these sacred writings were returned to the people after the Babylonian captivity. Ezra the scribe read the Scriptures out loud to the people.

From first century writer, Flavius Josephus, we discover that the sacred writings were kept in the temple before it was destroyed in A.D. 70. He was personally given the sacred scrolls by Titus; the man who conquered Jerusalem. Josephus informs us that the sacred writings in his possession numbered twenty-two; the exact same books that presently makeup the Old Testament. Nothing has been lost.

Therefore, we have a continuous testimony about the Old Testament canon from the time of Moses until the destruction of the second temple in A.D. 70.

Tradition says that the one who first collected all of the Old Testament writings was Ezra. However, of this we cannot be certain. What we do know is that the Scriptures were providentially preserved by the Lord for our benefit.

How Were Books Apart from the Writings of Moses Determined to Be Scripture? ← Prior Section
What Was the Earliest Writing That Was Put into the Old Testament Canon? Next Section →
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