Discovering Canonicity in the Old Testament
Last month we addressed the topic of whether the church discovered or determined canonicity, and the clear answer is that the church simply discovered what God inspired and determined authoritative. The next question that one must ask is, “then how was the authoritative value of each book discovered?” The answer can be found by taking a brief look at church history to discern how our Canon came to be. We will begin with the Old Testament, but a brief word of advice, do not call this collection of books the Old Testament to your Jewish friends. To them, it is the Tanach, which is a conglomeration of the divisions for the Hebrew Bible (Torah, Nebiim, Chetuvim) and corresponds to our understanding of Law, Prophets, and Writings.
What we call the Old Testament was well recognized by the time of Jesus. We can discern this truth from the words of our Lord as he communicates the three sectioned division of the Scriptures for His day: “ . . . everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Luke 24:44 (ESV). He also gave reference to the entirety of the Old Testament Canon in his citation of those martyred from the beginning of Genesis to the final martyr in the Hebrew Bible, found in Chronicles: “ . . . from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary.” Luke 11:51 (ESV) Even Josephus, the Jewish historian, recognized that the Canon of the Hebrew Scriptures was complete and no more writings were composed after the reign of Artazerxes, which would be about the time of Malachi (the last book of the Greek Old Testament, and the pattern of books our Bibles generally follow today).
From Artaxerxes (the successor of Xerxes) until our time everything has been recorded, but has not been deemed worthy of like credit with what preceded, because the exact succession of the prophets ceased. . . . For though so long a time has now passed, no one has dared to add anything to them, or to take anything from them, or to alter anything in them” (Josephus, Against Apion I. 8.).
In AD 90, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, Jewish scholars discerned the need to gather and affirm the books that they considered canonical at the council of Jamnia. Their conclusions correspond to the books we have in our Old Testament Bibles today.
Other factors that help us understand the development of the Old Testament Canon and its recognized authority include the progressive collection of Old Testament books as seen in the immediate acceptance of the “Book of the Covenant” as the Word of God (Ex 24:3-8), the immediacy of storing Deuteronomy by the Ark after Moses wrote it (Deut 31:24-26), and Daniel’s reference to “the books” that contained the “law of Moses” and the prophets (Dan 9:2, 6, 11). Later Old Testament Books quote many earlier books as authoritative. Examples of these quotations include Jonah’s recitation of the Psalms (Jonah 2), Ezekiel’s mention of Job and Daniel (Ezekiel 14:14, 20), Daniel’s citation of Jeremiah 25 (Daniel 9:2), and the many citations of the books of Moses as referenced throughout the rest of the Old Testament from Joshua 1:7 to Malachi 4:4.
Jesus’ affirmation of a closed Old Testament canon, Jewish tradition, and internal textual evidence all affirm a recognized inspired collection of works that the Jews deemed to be a standard authority. In our next newsletter we will continue this discussion on the discovery of the New Testament Canon, and some general principles reflective of the books considered canonical.
Until next time, this is Pastor Daniel writing “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
(*The above information was taken in large part from the notes for Dr. Michael Vlach)