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

Don Stewart :: What Was the Earliest Writing That Was Put into the Old Testament Canon?

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What Was the Earliest Writing That Was Put into the Old Testament Canon?

Are the Correct Books in the Old Testament? – Question 8

When did the Old Testament canon actually start? What was the first thing that God revealed to humanity that was written down as authoritative Scripture?

There is no certain answer in Scripture to this question. However, there are three possible writings that were the beginning of the Old Testament canon. They include: the Book of Genesis, the Book of Job, or the Ten Commandments.

Possibility 1: The Book of Genesis

The earliest collection of the words of God is not certain. Moses may have had the entire book of Genesis in some written form when he placed it with his own writings (Exodus - Deuteronomy).

There may be an indication of this. Ten times in the Book of Genesis we find the phrase, “this is the record of,” “these are the histories of,” or “this is the account of.”

For example, we read in the fifth chapter of Genesis the following statement:

This is the record of the family line of Adam. When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. (Genesis 5:1 NET)

This may indicate that some written records were used by Moses. If this is the case, then God guided Moses to gather the correct materials.

We do know that Luke also used sources to write his gospel. In the introduction to his gospel, he wrote the following:

Now many have undertaken to compile an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, like the accounts passed on to us by those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning. So it seemed good to me as well, because I have followed all things carefully from the beginning, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know for certain the things you were taught. (Luke 1:1-4 TNIV)

The Message puts it this way:

So many others have tried their hand at putting together a story of the wonderful harvest of Scripture and history that took place among us, using reports handed down by the original eyewitnesses who served this Word with their very lives. Since I have investigated all the reports in close detail, starting from the story’s beginning, I decided to write it all out for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can know beyond the shadow of a doubt the reliability of what you were taught. (Luke 1:1-4 MsgB)

In the case of Luke and Moses, God would have given them supernatural guidance and discernment concerning what documents to use.

Thus, Moses may have possessed a written account before he started his own writings. This would make Genesis the earliest writings that became part of Scripture.

Possibility 2: The Book of Job

Certain Bible students believe that the Book of Job was actually written before Genesis. Some of the events in the book of Job give the impression that the story occurred before the giving of the Mosaic Law. For example, Job served as a priest for his family. He would offer sacrifices for them. We read in Job:

And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and consecrate them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all. For Job said, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” Thus Job did continually. (Job 1:5 ESV)

This practice ceased once the Law of Moses was given. Thus the events recorded in Job may have occurred before the time of Moses. If this is the case, then Job could have been written before the Book of Genesis. However, this would only be true if Moses did not have any written records when he wrote Genesis.

There is also the possible mention of the sin of Adam in the Book of Job. It says:

If I have covered my transgressions as Adam, by hiding my iniquity in my bosom. (Job 31:33 NKJV)

If this is a reference to Adam’s fall, it may be reference to the written account in Genesis.

However, most English translations render this verse as referring to “men,” or “people,” and not specifically to Adam. The Hebrew word can be either a proper name, “Adam,” or the word for “people.”

For example, the New English Translation sees it as referring to people. They translate the verse as follows:

I have covered my transgressions as men do, by hiding iniquity in my heart. (Job 31:33 NET)

There is something else. While the Book of Job may have covered events that occurred before the giving of the Law, it does not mean that the final form of the Book was composed at that time.

Possibility 3: The Ten Commandments

It is also possible that the first written form of Scripture came from God Himself ? the Ten Commandments. When the Ten Commandments were written, it is possible that Moses had not compiled, or written, the Book of Genesis. This would have been likely seeing that the Ten Commandments were given immediately after the children of Israel left Egypt.

If this were the case, then the Ten Commandments would have been the start of the canon of Scripture. They could have been written before the Book of Genesis or the Book of Job. The Bible says the finger of God wrote the Ten Commandments:

When the LORD finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God. (Exodus 31:18 NIV)

The reference to the “finger of God” is not to be understood literally; God, by nature, is Spirit. Jesus said:

God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:24 NRSV)

God is not made up of some physical or corporeal form. The expression, “finger of God” emphasizes that God alone carved the Ten Commandments on two stone tablets.

Moses later said to the people:

These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and he added no more. And he wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me. (Deuteronomy 5:22 ESV)

This verse emphasizes that the Ten Commandments were the very words of God.

The first set of tablets was destroyed when Moses came down the mountain and found the people in sin. The Lord then wrote on the stone tablets a second time. The Bible says:

At that time the LORD said to me, “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones and come up to me on the mountain. Also make a wooden chest. I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Then you are to put them in the chest.” So I made the ark out of acacia wood and chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I went up on the mountain with the two tablets in my hands. The LORD wrote on these tablets what he had written before, the Ten Commandments he had proclaimed to you on the mountain, out of the fire, on the day of the assembly. And the LORD gave them to me. (Deuteronomy 10:1-4 NIV)

The Ten Commandments were placed in the Ark of the Covenant. Moses explained that this was what God commanded him to do:

Then I came back down the mountain and put the tablets in the ark I had made, as the LORD commanded me, and they are there now. (Deuteronomy 10:5 NIV)

The people of Israel believed that the Ten Commandments were God’s authoritative Word for them. They have always been held as sacred.

We Are Not Certain Which Was Written First

Ultimately, we do not know, nor can we know, which of these three were actually written down first. A case can be made for each one of these writings as being the first part of Scripture that God gave to humanity. What we do know is that it is possible that any of them may have been the first writing that eventually became part of the Bible.

Summary – Question 8
What Was the Earliest Writing That Was Placed in the Old Testament Canon?

While we are not told exactly which writing was the earliest to become part of the Old Testament canon, there are three candidates—the Book of Genesis, the Book of Job, and the Ten Commandments. Any of these three could have been the first writings that became part of Scripture.

Moses could have compiled Genesis from previously written records. The events in Job may have taken place before the time of Moses. The Ten Commandments could have been written down before Genesis or Job. What we do know is that Genesis, Job, and the Ten Commandments are all part of authoritative Scripture.

When, by Whom, and Where Were the Books of the Old Testament Finally Collected? ← Prior Section
What Criteria Were Used to Recognize Which Books Belonged in the Old Testament? Next Section →
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