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

Don Stewart :: What Criteria Were Used to Recognize Which Books Belonged in the Old Testament?

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What Criteria Were Used to Recognize Which Books Belonged in the Old Testament?

Are the Correct Books in the Old Testament? – Question 9

What were the criteria that were used to recognize which books were given by divine revelation and belonged in the Old Testament? What things were used to decide which books belonged in Holy Scripture? Do we have an answer to this question?

No Exact Criteria Are Listed Anywhere

There is no simple answer to this question because no criteria are listed in the Old Testament. Nowhere do we find any standard listed, or any decision that was made, about the books that eventually became part of the Old Testament Scripture.

Probable Questions That Were Asked about Each Book

However, it is probably safe to say that a number of questions would have been asked of any book that was assumed to have been divinely inspired. The following criteria were most likely used to recognize the books that were divinely inspired.

1. Did the Writer Claim Divine Inspiration?

One question would have been, “Did the book indicate that God was speaking through the writer?” It is clear that the various writers of the Old Testament books believed that God was speaking through them. For example, we read of Moses writing the following:

And God spoke all these words, saying? (Exodus 20:1 NKJV)

We also read that God spoke to Joshua. The Book of Joshua begins by saying the following:

After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, it came to pass that the LORD spoke to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying? (Joshua 1:1 NKJV)

Isaiah the prophet claimed to receive God’s Word. He wrote:

This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:1 NIV)

The consistent testimony, of almost all of the Old Testament books, is that God actually spoke through the writers.

There is the point of view that says that each Old Testament book was written for the express purpose of being a divine standard of faith and practice. Each writer believed that he was divinely inspired of God and thus wrote under that belief. While this may be correct, it is not possible to prove since we do not have sufficient evidence to back this up.

2. Was the Author a Genuine Prophet of God?

A second question may have concerned the identity of the human author, “Was the human author recognized as a spokesman of God, that is, was he a prophet, or did he have the prophetic gift?” As a prophet, the person would have the ability to speak and write with God’s authority. Moses recorded the following:

The LORD said to me: “What they say is good. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him.” (Deuteronomy 18:17-18 NIV)

The New Revised Standard Version translates these verses as follows:

Then the LORD replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.” (Deuteronomy 18:17-18 NRSV)

Later, in the book of Deuteronomy, we read that the writings of the prophet Moses were considered to be Scripture. It says:

After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law from beginning to end, he gave this command to the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD: “Take this Book of the Law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God. There it will remain as a witness against you.” (Deuteronomy 31:24-26 NIV)

The Bible says that Samuel the prophet wrote certain things in a book. The Bible says:

Samuel explained to the people the regulations of the kingship. He wrote them down on a scroll and deposited it before the LORD. Then Samuel dismissed the people, each to his own home. (1 Samuel 10:25 NIV)

It has been argued that while not every book was actually written by a prophet, each book may have had some sort of prophetic endorsement behind it. Although this may be true, it cannot be proven in the case of some of the Old Testament books. These include: Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon.

3. Did the Writings Agree with Previous Doctrine?

This test would compare the teachings of any new writing with the teaching of the writings which were already accepted. Since God cannot contradict Himself, if the book under consideration was found to be contradictory with the previous accepted writings, then it would automatically be rejected. However, the reverse is not necessarily true. Merely because a book is orthodox, and agrees with previous doctrine, does not make it Holy Scripture.

4. Was the Book Accepted as Authoritative?

The fact that the people of God accepted the books as authoritative is another indication of their divine inspiration. The people believed these Old Testament books had God’s authority behind them. Later prophets acknowledged earlier prophets. For a book to be considered Scripture, there must have been continuous acceptance by the people of God. However, it must be remembered that the books were not given authority by the people of God ? they already possessed divine authority when written.

5. Did the Writing Survive Through Time?

The fact that a book survived for long ages also says something about it. Each of these ancient works were slowly copied by hand on material that was perishable. For a work to survive over a long period of time it had to be copied and recopied. The fact that this is what occurred with each of the biblical books shows that they were highly valued by the people.

In fact, the Lord put a command in place which would assure the continuous copying of the Law of Moses. In the Book of Deuteronomy, we are told that the king had the following responsibilities toward the Scriptures:

And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, from that which is in the charge of the Levitical priests. (Deuteronomy 17:18 RSV)

The command would insure that a copy of the Law would always exist.

In addition, the Lord commanded that the Law be read out loud to the people every seven years. The Bible says:

Moses commanded them, “At the end of [every] seven years, at the appointed time in the year of debt cancellation, during the Festival of Booths, when all Israel assembles in the presence of the Lord your God at the place He chooses, you are to read this law aloud before all Israel. Gather the people-men, women, children, and foreigners living within your gates-so that they may listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and be careful to follow all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 31:10-12 HCSB)

This is another safeguard to insure the continuous existence of the Scripture.

6. The Writings Did Survive Through Time

History bears out the fact that there was a continuous copying of the Holy Scripture. We know that the sacred writings were carried to the city of Babylon when the city of Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. In Babylon, Daniel the prophet had a copy of the writings of Jeremiah the prophet in his possession. We read about this in the Book of 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)

Later, these writings were brought back to the Second Temple. We find that the king gave Ezra everything that he asked for. The Bible says:

This Ezra was a scribe, well versed in the law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given to the people of Israel. He came up to Jerusalem from Babylon, and the king gave him everything he asked for, because the gracious hand of the LORD his God was on him. (Ezra 7:6 NLT)

When Ezra returned, he had the Book of the Law with him. The Bible says:

And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel. (Nehemiah 8:1 RSV)

This fulfilled a promise that God had made through the prophet Jeremiah. It is as follows:

Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says about the precious things kept in the Temple and in the palace of Judah’s king: They will all be carried away to Babylon and will stay there until I send for them, says the LORD. But someday I will bring them back to Jerusalem again. (Jeremiah 27:21-22 NLT)

As always, God keeps His promises.

7. The Completion of the Old Testament and the Beginning of the New Testament

The Old Testament was completed about 430 B.C. with Nehemiah and Malachi being the last writers. There was no further revelation until John the Baptist came preaching the soon coming of the Messiah. The New Testament records this as follows:

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2 NASB)

Thus, after four hundred and fifty years of silence, the Lord again spoke to His people Israel. On this occasion it was to announce the coming of the One to whom the Law and the Prophets spoke about.

Summary – Question 9
What Criteria Were Used to Recognize Which Books Belonged in the Old Testament Canon?

God gave the world a limited number of sacred books during the Old Testament period. However, we do not know the exact criteria that were used in recognizing these divinely inspired books from other writings.

However, there are certain things that the Old Testament does say that gives us some ideas as to why they were accepted. A book that claimed to be divinely inspired, written by a man of God, contained teaching that was consistent with what God had already revealed, and was accepted by the people of God, were the minimal criteria to have the book being accepted. All of the current Old Testament books meet these criteria.

Furthermore, the writing would have had to have been copied and recopied to survive. This would further demonstrate its worth in the eyes of the people. Indeed, the fact that these writings have survived throughout time indicates the value that the people placed upon them.

What Was the Earliest Writing That Was Put into the Old Testament Canon? ← Prior Section
What Are Some of the Inadequate Reasons Why a Book Would Be Part of the Old Testament Canon? Next Section →
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