To speak of the OT “canon” means to refer to those books recognized and approved as the official, authoritative, and received sacred books used by the church for determining faith and practice. This is a simple fact; but there are issues and questions that arise because of the several major Christian groups, each of which recognize a different list of sacred books, although most of the books in their respective canons are common among these groups. The Protestant list of OT books considered canonical is thirty-nine, while the Roman Catholic (forty-six), and Jewish (twenty-four) differ in number, classification, or arrangement.The Ethiopian Canon consists of 81 books, including Jubilees and 1 Enoch. The Greek Orthodox differs slightly from the Catholic Canon; it adds 1 Esdras, Prayer of Manasseh, 3 and 4 Maccabees, and Psalm 51. (See also “Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha,” pp. 141ff.)
|Hebrew Bible (24)|
|English Bible (39)|
|English Bible (46)|
POETRY AND WISDOM
NOTE: Confusion arises because of the different nomenclature used to refer to the various extant bodies of literature recognized in some way by the various bodies of the church. For example:
|Protestant Terminology||Roman Catholic Terminology|
|Canonical* (39 books)||Proto-Canonical*|
|Apocryphal (11 books)||Deuterocanonical*|
|* = Used to form faith and doctrine.|
The establishment of these differing canons can be explained to a large extent by the historical fortunes of the groups involved and the history of the books and documents included in the canon of each group. However, the basis for all of the Christian “canons” is the Palestinian Hebrew canon as listed above, consisting of twenty-four books arranged in three major divisions.
The twenty-four books that make up the Hebrew Bible represent only a portion of the literary output of ancient Israel. The books included in the canon were recognized by a.d. 90 at the latest, but probably much earlier. R. T. Beckwith argues for the closing of the threefold organization of the Jewish canon by 164 b.c. (Mikra, 58), and the practical use of this canon earlier. Debates about the canonicity of Ezekiel, Esther, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon did continue after 164 b.c. and even c. a.d. 90. However, it seems that there was a functioning Hebrew Canon well before a.d. 90, and the books under discussion c. a.d. 90 were already in the standard list of canonical books.
These twenty-four books were believed to have been inspired by God; therefore, they possessed a normative character and acknowledged authority for the Jewish, and later, the Christian community, serving as the guideline for faith and practice. The fundamental features of these sacred writings were put forth in the ancient traditions: God did indeed inspire them and their “self-authenticating” nature, demonstrating and convincing persons and communities in various ways of their divine authority and truth. These sacred documents had not been declared authoritative by virtue of having been included in a recognized canon of books, but were included in the list because of their self-demonstrated authority. Authority preceded canonicity.
As the above chart shows, the Hebrew canon was divided into three major divisions: (1) The Torah (Law) Genesis-Deuteronomy; (2) the Prophets (former and latter): (a) Joshua-2 Kings, excluding Ruth, (b) Isaiah-Ezekiel, plus twelve minor prophets; (3) the Writings, remaining books. This threefold division of the canon originated in ancient times, but details of the process are now lost to us. It was originally argued that the three divisions were recognized one at a time in chronological sequence: (1) Torah, fifth century b.c.; (2) Prophets, third century b.c.; (3) Writings (hagiographa, “holy writings,” including Daniel, Chronicles, and other disputed books), a.d. 90, at the Council of Jamnia. Beckwith has effectively challenged this position and argued cogently for a recognition of the threefold organization of the Hebrew Scriptures by 164 b.c., when Judas Maccabaeus gathered the holy writings (1 Macc. 1:56-57; 2 Macc. 2:14-15). Judas supposedly would have found ready at hand the recognized books; hence, even then the canon was “closed.” At any rate, it seems certain that the threefold division of the Hebrew canon was established by 132 b.c. when it is clearly mentioned in the prologue to the book of Ecclesiasticus, a book included among the apocrypha (see “Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha,” pp. 141ff.).
The Christian church became the heir to the Hebrew Scriptures and was born with a canon in its hands. The Hebrew canon was given the stamp of approval by our Lord, all three divisions of it being alluded to in Luke 24:44, where Psalms stands for the entire division of the Writings. Some scholars argue for an expanded Alexandrian OT canon (Mikra, 81), including the books commonly known as the Apocrypha, which are in the Roman Catholic canon listed above. But there is no evidence that the Jews attached divine authority to these books. Some Christians include them among the Old Testament Scriptures, but the Roman church did not canonize them until a.d. 1546 at the Council of Trent. Jews did not canonize them.
The apocryphal books became an issue and part of the Christian canon because of the church's use of the Septuagint (LXX), a translation of the Hebrew Palestinian canon. The Hebrew Palestinian canon had never included these extra apocryphal books, and neither Philo, the Jew, (c. 20 b.c.-a.d. 45) nor Josephus (a.d. 90) regarded the Apocrypha as canonical.
For fifteen centuries the church's “functional canon” included the apocryphal books, although they were not considered inspired and authoritative by many. During the renaissance and reformation era, the Protestant Reformation adopted only the recognized Jewish canon as Old Testament canon. At the Council of Trent in 1546 the Roman Catholic Church affirmed a broader canon of forty-six books including the Apocrypha, as listed in the chart. (See note at bottom of chart.) This historical fact is evidenced in modern English Bibles that print the Apocrypha as a separate section or in a separate volume of the Bible (e.g., Oxford Annotated Bible; RSV Apocrypha; or the New English Bible With Apocrypha).
David Hubbard observes in Old Testament Survey, “The Christian Church was born with a canon in its hands. The apostolic community never knew what it was not to have authoritative writings” (p. 17). The OT did comprise a body of authoritative writings for Jesus and the church. Jesus (Mt 1:22; 4:11; Jn 5:39), Paul (Ro 1-2; 1Co 1; Gal 3:8, 22; 4:30 [indeed, the entirety of Galatians]; 2Ti 3:16), Hebrews, James, John, Revelation, all show utter dependence upon the OT Hebrew canon as holy Scripture, quoting it hundreds of times to clinch their arguments and as God's revealed source of truth. The Apocrypha is not cited in this way.
The Old Testament was considered revelatory by both the OT writers (Da 2:27-28, 9:22; Am 3:7; Ex 25:9), and NT writers (2Pe 1:21; Heb 4:12-13; 2Ti 3:15). As revelation, it is both active, informing us about that which God alone can make known to us, and passive, itself being the result of God's act of revealing. The OT “uncovers or lays bare” God's character, nature, wisdom, and love, otherwise unavailable to human beings (gālāh; apokaluptō). And the OT is God's progressive revelation, for he did not reveal all of himself or his intentions at one time to the human race (Heb 1:1-3). The greatest revelations are two: that God is both Creator and Redeemer, working redemptively through time and history to save the human race from destruction; and that the OT is inspired and trustworthy in that it is “God breathed” (2Ti 3:16). The OT ultimately has God as its author through his agency of divinity, the Holy Spirit, and his agents of humanity, individual human beings.
The recognition of a canon of authoritative OT Scripture was affirmed by the church Fathers many times: Melito of Sardis (a.d. 170; all but Esther), Epiphanius in Cyprus (late fourth century; all included), Origen (a.d. 185-254), Athanasius (a.d. 367, letter), Jerome (a.d. 347-420) and others. All of these record the books of the Palestinian Hebrew canon as authoritative, excluding the apocryphal books but indicating that they are considered by some to be beneficial reading.
Click the button below to continue.
For the best Bible Gateway experience, consider an upgrade to Bible Gateway Plus. For less than the cost of a latte each month, you'll get reduced banner ads and a huge digital Bible study library. Try it free for 30 days!
Three easy steps to start your free trial subscription to Bible Gateway Plus.