The Canon of the Old Testament

Yesterday my family and I began reading Chapter 3, “The Canon of Scripture,” of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology in our after breakfast Bible reading time. We read the introduction to the chapter and parts of the first half of its section on the canon of the Old Testament. We expect to spend three more days reading from the chapter.

The canon of the Bible is the list of books that belong to the Bible. The importance of having such a list is suggested by what Moses warned the Israelites about their Bible, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you” (Deuteronomy 4:2; all quotations from the Bible are from the ESV).

The first collection of the words of God was the Ten Commandments, which God Himself wrote on two tablets of stone and ordered to be kept in the ark of the covenant. “And he (God) gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God” and “the Lord said to me [Moses], ‘…you shall put them in the ark'” (Exodus 31:18; Deuteronomy 10:1-2).

Deuteronomy 31:24-26 describes Moses’s adding to the collection, “When Moses had finished writing the words of this law in a book to the very end, Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, ‘Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there for a witness against you.” And Joshua 24:26 records Joshua’s adding to that Book of the Law, “Joshua wrote these words [the covenant he made with the people that they would serve God] in the Book of the Law.” Others added to it through Israel’s history until the time of Malachi (about 435 B.C.)

The last historical book of the Old Testament, Nehemiah, was written about that time. Later history of the Jews was recorded in other books, such as the books of the Maccabees, but they were not included in the Hebrew Bible. A Jewish historian of the first century A.D., Josephus, explains why thus: “Our history has been written since Artaxerxes [the Persian ruler who authorized Nehemiah’s visit to Jerusalem], very particularly, but hath not been esteemed of like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there has not been an exact succession of prophets since that time” (Flavius Josephus Against Apion, I, 8).

Although disputes continued over the inclusion of a few books until the Jewish Council of Jamnia about 90 A.D., the number and order of the books in the Hebrew Bible was probably decided long before then. One of the Jewish histories not included in the Hebrew Bible records, “Even so did Judas [Judas Maccabeus] collect for us all the writings which had been scattered owing to the outbreak of war” (<i>II Maccabees, II, 14). The war referred to was the revolt of the Jews under the Maccabees in 166-164 B.C. against being forced to live like Greeks. After the war Judas had the books which had been scattered because of it collected and probably arranged and listed them the way that they now are.

According to the Talmud [the collection of Jewish civil and religious laws], the Hebrew Bible contains twenty-four books in three divisions: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. 24 books? But the Old Testament has 39 books. Actually, the contents are the same, but the Hebrew Bible combines several of the books that the Old Testament has as separate books, notably the 12 minor prophets. In our family reading I shared a chart showing how the books of the Hebrew Bible are arranged, which is given in a companion to Systematic Theology, Gregg R. Allison’s Historical Theology (Zondervan, 2011; the chart is on page 38).

These 24 (or 39) books are what Jesus told his disciples he came to fulfill. In the Sermon on the Mount he said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18). And after his resurrection on he joining two of them on their way to Emmaus, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27).

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2 thoughts on “The Canon of the Old Testament

  1. Allison

    I didn’t realize (or remember) that the Hebrew Bible combines several of the books that our Old Testament has separate. The explanation about why the Hebrew Old Testament doesn’t include the Maccabees and other such books of Jewish history was also informative.

    Reply
  2. Bob Hunter Post author

    Thanks for the encouraging comment, Allison. I started reading the Apocrypha at least once but can’t remember whether I ever read all the books in it.

    Reply

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