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

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Don Stewart

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The exact details as to the final completion of the Old Testament canon are not known. However, the Old Testament provides some evidence of the manner in which the various books were recognized as canonical. The best way to look at the process is to consider it in two parts - the writings of Moses and the writings after Moses.

The Books Of Moses

The first five books of Scripture were basically the work of one man - Moses. The Bible says that God spoke face to face with Moses.

And he said, "Hear my words: When there are prophets among you, I the LORD make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dreams. Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak face to face-clearly, not in riddles; and he beholds the form of the LORD" (Numbers 12:6-8).

Moses had a unique relationship with the Lord

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel (Deuteronomy 34:10-12).

Moses spoke God's word to the people. In addition, God caused Moses write down authoritative Scripture. While both forms were God's Word, the only permanent form was that which was written.

The Books Were Written Under God's Authority

Early in the history of the nation Israel there was evidence that certain writings had God's authority behind them. These writings served as a standard for belief and practice. The first five books of the Old Testament are known variously as the Law, the Law of Moses, the Torah, and the Pentateuch (meaning "five books"). The idea of a canon goes back to Moses writings; God's law in the wilderness.

Then the LORD said to Moses, "Write this as a reminder in a book and recite it in the hearing of Joshua: I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven" (Exodus 17:14).

Moses was recognized as writing them under the authority of God. The Lord told him to write down certain things.

And the Lord said to Moses, "Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel" (Exodus 34:27).

Genesis Through Deuteronomy

The writings that came from Moses were the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy. Moses seems to have used earlier documents to write Genesis. For example, we read in Genesis.

This is the written account of Adam's line. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God (Genesis 5:1).

It seems that Moses collected some written records to compile Genesis.

In Exodus it says.

And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD. And he rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel (Exodus 24:4).

The Book of Numbers states.

Moses wrote down their starting places, stage by stage, by command of the LORD; and these are their stages according to their starting places (Numbers 33:2).

In Deuteronomy we find the following.

So Moses wrote this song the same day, and taught it to the people of Israel (Deuteronomy 31:22).

We find that in the Book of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy there are specific references of Moses writing things that the Lord had revealed to him.

The Writings Were Placed In A Book

Therefore, from the beginning, we find God ordering certain things to be written down and placed in a book. Scripture says that Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord in the Book of the Covenant and then read it to the people.

Moses then wrote down everything the LORD had said. . . . Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, "We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey" (Exodus 24:4,7).

This shows that the people regarded the Book of the Covenant (probably Exodus 20-23) as a standard of what to believe and how to behave.

The Writings Were To Be Preserved

The Law of Moses was to be preserved as memorial. The king was to have a copy of Scripture.

Now it shall come about when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this law on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. It shall be with him and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, by carefully observing all the words of this law and these statutes, that his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or the left, so that he and his sons may continue long in his kingdom in the midst of Israel (Deuteronomy 17:18-20).

The writings were also to be a witness to the people.

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).

The People Had The Responsibility To Obey

The Law of Moses assigned specific responsibility to various Old Testament groups and officials. To the Levites was given the custody or care of the written Scriptures.

Then Moses wrote this law and delivered it to the levitical priests responsible for carrying the ark of the Lord's covenant and to all Israel's elders (Deuteronomy 31:9).

The Writings Were Accepted As Authoritative By Those Afterward

Those who came afterward accepted the Law of Moses as an authoritative work. The Book of Joshua accepted that Moses' writings were authoritative. Joshua wrote.

Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful (Joshua 1:8).

Joshua read all of Moses' words to the people.

There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the aliens who resided among them (Joshua 8:31).

The people were supposed to observe what was in the Law of Moses. Joshua said.

Therefore be very steadfast to observe and do all that is written in the book of the law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right nor to the left (Joshua 23:6).


The fact of the survival of certain pagan nations around Israel proved the truth of what God had said to Moses. We read in Judges.

They [the pagan nations] were for the testing of Israel, to know whether Israel would obey the commandments of the LORD, which he commanded their ancestors by Moses (Judges 3:4).

Later Generations Accepted Moses' Writings As Authoritative

Later generations considered the writings of Moses as authoritative. There are many Old Testament references to this. For example, in the Book of First Kings we are told that those who keep the Law of Moses will prosper.

And keep the charge of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his ordinances, and his testimonies, as it is written in the law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn (1 Kings 2:3).

In Second Kings, we find a specific law about how to treat the children of murderers. Their source was the book of the Law of Moses.

But he did not put to death the children of the murderers; according to what is written in the book of the law of Moses, where the LORD commanded, "The parents shall not be put to death for the children, or the children be put to death for the parents; but all shall be put to death for their own sins" (2 Kings 14:6).

The Book Of Law Was Rediscovered

In 2 Kings 22 the Bible records the account of the rediscovery of the book of the Law by Hilkiah.

Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, "I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the LORD." He gave it to Shaphan, who read it (2 Kings 22:8).

The Law was then read to the good king Josiah.

Shaphan the secretary informed the king, "The priest Hilkiah has given me a book." Shaphan then read it aloud to the king. When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes (2 Kings 22:10,11).

He, in turn, had the Law read to the people.

Then the king directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him. The king went up to the house of the LORD, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the LORD (2 Kings 23:1,2).

Again we find the people were expected to obey that which was written in the Law.

The Kings Were Judged According To Law

We also discover that the kings of Israel and Judah were judged according to how they obeyed or disobeyed the Law of Moses. Jeroboam was judged for disobeying the Law of Moses.

Go, tell Jeroboam, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Because I exalted you from among the people, made you leader over my people Israel, and tore the kingdom away from the house of David to give it to you; yet you have not been like my servant David, who kept my commandments and followed me with all his heart, doing only that which was right in my sight" (1 Kings 14:7,8).

Jehoshaphat was blessed for keeping God's Law.

They taught in Judah, having the book of the law of the LORD with them; they went around through all the cities of Judah and taught among the people. The fear of the LORD fell on all the kingdoms of the lands around Judah, and they did not make war against Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 17:9).

Hezekiah was blessed for obeying God's commandments.

He held fast to the LORD and did not cease to follow him; he kept the commands the LORD had given Moses (2 Kings 18:6).

Josiah was a good king faithful to the Law of Moses.

Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the LORD as he did - with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses (2 Kings 23:25).

The actions of all of these kings were evaluated by how they obeyed the Law of Moses.

The Babylonian Captivity Was Based Upon Disobedience To The Law Of Moses

The Babylonian captivity was a result of the disobedience of the children of Israel to the Law of Moses - specifically they started worshipping idols.

All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of Egypt from under the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. They worshiped other gods and followed the practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before them, as well as the practices that the kings of Israel had introduced (2 Kings 17:7,8).

Daniel confessed.

All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. So the curse and the oath written in the law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against you (Daniel 9:11).

The People Obeyed The Law Of Moses After The Babylonian Captivity

After the captivity the people began to obey the Law of Moses again.

Then Jeshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God (Ezra 3:2).

The Law Was Read Out Loud To The People

After the return from the Babylonian captivity, Ezra read the Book of the Law to people.

He read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of men and women, those who could understand; and all the people were attentive to the book of the law (Nehemiah 8:3).

It then says.

So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading (Nehemiah 8:8).

The Lord Promised Not To Remove Them Again

If they obeyed His commandments the Lord promised never to remove them from the land again.

I will never again remove the feet of Israel from the land that I appointed for your ancestors, if only they will be careful to do all that I have commanded them, all the law, the statutes, and the ordinances given through Moses (2 Chronicles 33:8).

The Law Of Moses Was Clearly An Authoritative Work

These passages make it clear that the Law of Moses was considered the authoritative Word of God to the people of Israel. They were expected to obey the commandments contained within the Law. If they did not obey, then they would be subject to the punishment of God. The entire history of the nation of Israel is based upon its obedience or disobedience to the Law of Moses. However the Law of Moses was not the end of God's revelation to Israel.

Other Divine Writings Were To Be Expected

We do find that other divine writings, apart from the Law of Moses, were to be expected. First, there was nothing final about the Law of Moses. There is no hint in the Law that it was to be the only written revelation from God.

Second, the Lord promised to raise up prophets after Moses. It would only be natural to assume that some of the words of the prophets would also be committed to writing.

In addition, the Law of Moses was incomplete. There were predictions made of things to come. God's promises needed to be fulfilled and recorded. All of this anticipates further Scritpure.

The Writings After Moses

While it is clear that the five books of Moses were regarded as divine throughout the entire Old Testament period, the situation is less clear for the other books. The Old Testament provides very little in the way of information about the collection of other divinely authoritative books.

The Gift Of Prophecy Continued After Moses

Following Moses, God raised up the institution of prophecy to continue revealing Himself to His people. Moses promised that this would happen.

The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: "If I hear the voice of the LORD my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die." 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. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable" (Deuteronomy 18:15-19).

While divine revelation did not end with Moses the process of the acceptance of canonical works after Moses is not quite as obvious. However there are a number of things that we can learn.


Joshua, who was the successor of Moses, continued to receive and write authoritative truth from the Lord. The Book of Joshua says.

So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem. And Joshua recorded these things in the Book of the Law of God. Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the LORD (Joshua 24:25,26).

Joshua's writings were placed in the very Book of the Law that Moses wrote. His work would have been immediately accepted with the same authority as Moses' writings.

These sacred writings were kept at the sanctuary at Shechem. This practice, of placing holy records in the sanctuary, was done by many other nations of antiquity. This is another indication that Joshua, like Moses, was regarded as having written Holy Scripture.


We are told that Samuel wrote down the regulations, put them on a scroll, and kept it in the sanctuary.

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).

Since his writings would have been placed with those of Moses and Joshua, they would have immediately been accepted as Holy Scripture


The Chronicler mentions that the annals of Jehu were written the Book of First Kings.

The other events of Jehoshaphat's reign, from beginning to end, are written in the annals of Jehu son of Hanani, which are recorded in the book of the kings of Israel (2 Chronicles 20:34).

The Book of First Kings says that Jehu was prophet.

Moreover, the word of the LORD came through the prophet Jehu son of Hanani to Baasha and his house, because of all the evil he had done in the eyes of the LORD, provoking him to anger by the things he did, and becoming like the house of Jeroboam - and also because he destroyed it (1 Kings 16:7).

Therefore, at least part of the Book of Kings (First and Second Kings) was written by one who had the prophetic gift.


Isaiah the prophet was told by the Lord to write words on a scroll.

The LORD said to me, "Take a large scroll and write on it with an ordinary pen: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz" (Isaiah 8:1).

These words were to be preserved as a memorial for the future.

Go now, write it on a tablet for them, inscribe it on a scroll, that for the days to come it may be an everlasting witness (Isaiah 30:8).


We also find the Lord telling the prophet Ezekiel to write certain things down.

And if they are ashamed of all they have done, make known to them the design of the temple - its arrangement, its exits and entrances - its whole design and all its regulations and laws. Write these down before them so that they may be faithful to its design and follow all its regulations (Ezekiel 43:11).


God told Jeremiah the prophet to write down words in a book.

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'Write in a book all the words I have spoken to you'" (Jeremiah 30:1,2).

Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi

The end of the Old Testament came at the time of the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Malachi wrote approximately 400 B.C. The last books of history were Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. The events that were contained in the Book of Esther were written basically in the same time period as Malachi. Their writings would have completed the Old Testament canon.

Only A Few Other Authoritative Writings Are Referred To

Apart from the five Books of Moses, mainly the authors themselves acknowledge the divine inspiration of their own works. There are, however, a few references of one prophet acknowledging another prophet or one writer acknowledging other books. In one example, Isaiah wrote of "the Book of the Lord."

Seek and read from the book of the LORD: Not one of these shall be missing; none shall be without its mate. For the mouth of the LORD has commanded, and his Spirit has gathered them (Isaiah 34:16).

The contents of this book are not identified.

Daniel Spoke Of The Books

Daniel spoke of the "books."

In the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the word of the LORD to the prophet Jeremiah, must be fulfilled for the devastation of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years (Daniel 9:2).

This is the earliest reference we have to a collection of "sacred books." However nothing is said as to what books were in the collection or how many there were.

The Chronicler notes the writings of the prophet Isaiah.

The other events of Uzziah's reign, from beginning to end, are recorded by the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz (2 Chronicles 26:22).

The Psalms Were Written Over Time

The Book of Psalms was not all composed at once or by one person. We read about the end of the psalms of David.

This concludes the prayers of David son of Jesse (Psalm 72:20).

Therefore the psalms of David make up only a part of the Book of Psalms.

The Proverbs Of Solomon Were Collected And Edited

The Bible says that the proverbs of Solomon were collected and copied by the men of Hezekiah.

These are more proverbs of Solomon, copied by the men of Hezekiah king of Judah (Proverbs 25:1).

This is another indication of the process of the composition the Old Testament books.

The Earlier Prophets Were Quoted As Authoritative By The Later Prophets

Those who came later quoted the earlier prophets as authoritative. In the Book of Jeremiah it says.

Some of the elders of the land stepped forward and said to the entire assembly of people, "Micah of Moresheth prophesied in the days of Hezekiah king of Judah. He told all the people of Judah, `This is what the LORD Almighty says . . . There was another man prophesying in the name of the LORD, Uriah son of Shemaiah from Kiriath-jearim. He prophesied against this city and against this land in words exactly like those of Jeremiah. (Jeremiah 26:17,18, 20).

We have a number of references in Zechariah to the former prophets.

Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the former prophets proclaimed, "Thus says the LORD of hosts, Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds." But they did not hear or heed me, says the LORD. Your ancestors, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever? But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your ancestors? So they repented and said, "The LORD of hosts has dealt with us according to our ways and deeds, just as he planned to do" (Zechariah 1:4-6).

Zechariah also wrote.

Were not these the words that the LORD proclaimed by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and in prosperity, along with the towns around it, and when the Negeb and the Shephelah were inhabited? (Zechariah 7:7).

He then said.

They made their hearts adamant in order not to hear the law and the words that the LORD of hosts had sent by his spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great wrath came from the LORD of hosts (Zechariah 7:12).

The Books Were Probably Recognized Individually The books after Moses were written by a number of different people during a one thousand year period. Most likely, they were individually recognized as being canonical. When the recognition that the prophetic gift had been removed from the nation (about 400 B.C.) these writings were then put into clearly defined divisions. The Old Testament Scripture Was Probably Collected By Ezra

One of the most likely 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 of 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.

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).

The Story Of The Ezra Legend (Written In A.D. 100)

There is also what is known as the Ezra legend. It says that for forty days, under divine inspiration, Ezra dictated to five scribes the twenty-four books of the Old Testament as well as seventy other books that were not to be made public at that time.

So during the forty days, ninety-four books were written. And when the forty days were ended, the Most High spoke to me, saying, "Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first, and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people. For in them is the spring of understanding, the fountain of wisdom, and the river of knowledge." And I did so. Five thousand years and three months and twelve days after creation. At that time Ezra was caught up, and taken to the place of those who are like him, after he had written all these things. And he was called the scribe of the knowledge of the Most High for ever and ever (2 Esdras 14:44-48).

The twenty-four books that 2 Esdras mentions are the Hebrew Scriptures. While all the details of this account cannot be taken seriously, there is some reason as to why this tradition exists. Therefore it seems fair to conclude that Ezra was responsible for collecting the sacred writings.

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 in First Maccabees.

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).

Judas Maccabaeus Collected The Sacred Books (Second Century B.C.)

After defeating Antiochus IV, Judas Maccabaeus collected the sacred books.

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).

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.

The Sacred Writings Were Always Placed In The Temple 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. This 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.).

When all the evidence is considered we have 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.


Within the Old Testament itself we find that the Law of Moses was accepted as authoritative Scripture. In the same way, God sent prophets and wise men after Moses. Their writings were accepted with the same respect as Moses-they were received as the Word of God. Therefore within the pages of the Old Testament we find the idea of an authoritative group of writings.

From the earliest times we find that the writings of Moses, Joshua, and Samuel were immediately accepted as Holy Scripture. Samuel was the author First and Second Samuel. He may also have written Judges and Ruth.

The collection of sacred writings that make up our present Old Testament grew over the period of Israel's history. Even before the Old Testament books were placed in a canon these sacred writings were considered important. From the beginning, the words contained in these books were understood as being the words of the Lord.

The first person to speak of a collection was Daniel the Prophet. However the Old Testament itself does not give us any indication as to the extent of the canon. This would come later.

The one who first collected all of the Old Testament writings was probably Ezra.

Finally, from first century author Flavius Josephus we discover that the sacred writings were kept in the temple before it was destroyed in A.D. 70. 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.

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