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Don Stewart :: Apart from the New Testament, What Other Historical Evidence Exists for the Old Testament Canon?

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Don Stewart

Apart from the New Testament, there are a number of important historical evidences drawn from the ancient writings that give support to the extent of the Old Testament canon that is found in the Protestant and Hebrew Bibles.

1. The Prologue To Ecclesiasticus

This book, written about 180 B.C, refers to a threefold division of the Old Testament - the Law, the Prophets, and hymns and precepts for human conduct. The writer's grandfather, who would have lived much earlier, knew of this division. He specifically mentions three times the three parts of the canon. For example, he wrote.

Many great things have been communicated to us through the Law and the prophets, and the others who followed after my grandfather Jeshua, after devoting himself for a long time to the reading of the Law and the prophets and the other books of our forefathers.

Consequently there seemed to be three recognized sections of the Hebrew Scripture at this time. Each section had a title and a set list of books. If this is true, then the threefold division occurred before 200 B.C.

2. Judas Maccabaeus

In 164 B.C., the Jewish patriot Judas Maccabaeus led a revolt that cleansed the defiled Temple. He then compiled a list of the inspired Prophets and the Holy Writings. It is described in this manner.

And in like manner Judas (Maccabaeus) also gathered together for us all those writings that had been scattered by reason of the war that befell, and they are still with us. If therefore you have need thereof, send some to bring them unto you (2 Maccabees 2:14).

While there was a group of holy writings with a known fixed limit, there had not been any books added to this group for a long time. It was clear that the prophetic gift had ceased a long time before. We also read.

So there was great distress in Israel, such as had not been since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them (1 Maccabees 9:27).

An authoritative prophet of God was only a memory of their distant past. They were looking for another prophet to appear

And stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them (1 Maccabees 4:46).

This is another indication the people were waiting for another prophet to arise. Elsewhere it says.

The Jews and their priests have resolved that Simon should be their leader and high priest forever, until a trustworthy prophet should arise (1 Maccabees 14:41).

These passages testify that they of knew of no one who could speak authoritatively from the Lord as had been true in the past. While they had a recognized list of authoritative writings, nothing had been added to this group for long ages.

He Recognized A Completed Scripture

Therefore the Book of First Maccabees testifies to a recognized completed Scripture that had been long-recognized.. A number of other works that were written between the testaments also testify to a written Scripture. They contain phrases such as, "According to Scripture," or, "It is written." This demonstrates knowledge of a canon of Scripture. However there is no explanation as to the extent of the canon.

3. The Dead Sea Scrolls

There seems to be some evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls as to the threefold division of the Hebrew Scriptures. This is found in one scroll titled, "Some of the Works of the Torah." It is also known as 4QMMT. In it we find the following statement

We have written to you that you may have understanding in the Book of Moses, and in the words of the Prophets, and in David.

This is clearly a testimony of the threefold division of the Old Testament - the Book of Moses (the Law), the Prophets, and David (which would represent the Psalms). The Psalms is the name given to the last division of the Hebrew Scriptures by Jesus.

He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms" (Luke 24:44).

4. Philo Of Alexandria

Philo was a Jew who lived in Alexandria, Egypt. He wrote around A D. 40. In his writings he referred to the same threefold division of the Old Testament. He wrote the following about the Law of Moses:

After a lapse of more than two thousand years [the Jews] have not changed a single word of what had been written by him [Moses], but they would sooner endure to die a thousand times than to violate his laws and customs.

He quoted from different books in all three parts of the Jewish division of the Old Testament. His testimony would have reflected the view of Alexandrian Judaism at that time.

5. Josephus

The clearest testimony of the extent of the Hebrew canon comes from the first century writer Flavius Josephus (A. D. 37-100). He said that the Jews held as sacred only twenty-two books (which include exactly the same as our present thirty-nine books of the Old Testament). He wrote.

We have but twenty-two [books] containing the history of all time, books that are justly believed in; and of these, five are the books of Moses, which comprise the law and earliest traditions from the creation of mankind down to his death. From the death of Moses to the reign of Artaxerxes, King of Persia, the successor of Xerxes, the prophets who succeeded Moses wrote the history of the events that occurred in their own time, in thirteen books. The remaining four documents comprise hymns to God and practical precepts to men (William Whiston, trans., Flavius Josephus against Apion, Vol. I, in Josephus, Complete Works, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1960, p. 8).

What We Learn From Josephus

There are at least four important things can be derived from this statement of Josphus.

(1) Josephus includes the same three divisions of the Hebrew Scripture, as had the Prologue to Ecclesiasticus and Philo.

(2) He limits the number of canonical books in these three divisions to twenty-two. This would be the same as the current twenty-four - Ruth was attached to Judges, and Lamentation attached to Jeremiah.

(3) He says there has been no more authoritative writings since the reign of Artaxerxes, son of Xerxes (464-424 B.C.). This is the same time of Malachi - the last book in the Old Testament.

We know that Artaxerxes ruled for forty years. Ezra came to Jerusalem in the seventh year of his rule. The Bible says

Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in the fifth month of the seventh year of the king (Ezra 7:8).

Nehemiah came in his twentieth year.

In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before (Nehemiah 2:1).

Therefore the last canonical books were composed in this period.

(4) Between the time of Malachi and Josephus' writing (425 B.C. to A.D. 90) no additional material were added to the canon of Scripture. Consequently there was the notion of a long period of time without a divinely authoritative Word from God.

The People Were Willing To Die For The Scripture

Josephus also declared the willingness of the Jewish people to die for their sacred writings.

And how firmly we have given credit to those books of our own nation is evident by what we do; for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add anything to them or take anything from them, or to make any change in them; but it becomes natural to all Jews, immediately and from their very birth, to esteem those books to contain divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be, willing to die for them. For it is no new thing for our captives, many of them in numbers, and frequently in time, to be seen to endure racks and deaths of all kinds upon the theatres, that they may not be obliged to say one word against our laws, and the records that contain them (Josephus, Ibid. p. 609).

Josephus Was Aware Of Other Writings Apart From The Hebrew Scriptures

Josephus also wrote concerning books that were composed after the completion of the sacred books.

From Artaxerxes to our times a complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit, with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets (Against Apion 1:41)

From this statement we learn that other writings had been composed after the completion of the Old Testament. However these books were not considered to be divinely authoritative as was the Scripture. There had been no authoritative Word from the Lord after Malachi.

The views of Josephus would have represented those of Palestinian Judaism in the first century.

6. The Testimony Of Second Esdras

There is the testimony of the twenty-four book Hebrew canon by the apocryphal work of Second Esdras. The Book of Second Esdras, although written in A.D. 100, claims to records revelations made to Ezra after the destruction of the first temple - some five hundred years earlier. It reads.

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).

According to the book of 2 Esdras Ezra republished the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The testimony of twenty-four, or twenty-two books, as Holy Scripture goes way back before the end of the first century A.D. Agreement on their number would also mean agreement on their identity. This is another strong testimony to a well-known set listing of books.

7. The Talmud

The Talmud is a handbook of Jewish traditions. From the Talmud we find the Jews realized that special revelation ceased with the prophet Malachi. The Talmud reads.

Up to this point [the time of Alexander the Great 330 B.C.] the prophets prophesied through the Holy Spirit; from this time onward incline your ear and listen to the sayings of the wise.

The Babylonian Talmud reads.

After the latter prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi had died, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel (Yoma 98).

In this context the Holy Spirit is a reference to divine prophecy.

The Old Testament Canon Had Long-Been Complete

As far as the Jews were concerned, it is clear from all of the evidence that long before the time of Jesus Christ, the Old Testament canon was closed. They had a clearly defined group of writings in which they recognized as sacred Scripture.


The idea of a finished Old Testament canon, long before the time of Jesus, is confirmed by a number of non-biblical sources. This includes the prologue to Ecclesiasticus, the work of Judas Maccabaeus, evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Alexandrian Jewish writer Philo and the Palestinian Jewish author Flavius Josephus.

In addition, there is the testimony of Second Esdras, and the Talmud. All of these sources give different degrees of testimony to our present Old Testament books as being the only books that were recognized by the Jews as authoritative Scripture.


The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.


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