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Formation of the Old Testament
The Old Testament canon varies in Jewish, Greek, Roman Catholic, and
Protestant Bibles. Over and above the contents of the Jewish Bible, there are
some fifteen books or portions of books that were accepted as in some sense
authoritative by Greek-reading Jews of around the time of Jesus. Protestants
have sometimes included these as an appendix to the Old Testament, under
the label “Apocrypha,” or excluded them altogether. Roman Catholics accept
twelve of these as “deuterocanonical” and include them in various places in
the test of the Old Testament. It is important to remember that the
Hebrew Bible consists of three sections: the Law or the Torah (the
Pentateuch), the Prophets, and the Writings.
The canon was not formed primarily by official decisions of authoritative
persons or councils at particular moments of history. Rather the canon
resulted mainly from a long process in the Hebrew and Christian communities
in which people of later generations read, heard, accepted, and applied to
themselves and their situation written records of God’s words to and dealings
with his chosen people and the communities of the believers.
The canon, therefore, was not something imposed on others by arbitrary
authority but something freely accepted by people who opened their eyes and
ears to God’s Word and who sought to apply God’s message to the needs
and circumstances in their lives. God’s message was delivered in these
writings with a word of clarity and power about who their identity and what
their moral lifestyle. It was therefore treasured and passed on to subsequent
generations as the authoritative tradition.
And only those books were passed on that had continuing meaning for the life
of the community. The rest (like the Book of Jashar [Josh. 10:13],
And the sun stood still, and the moon halted, until the people had taken
vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of the Just? The
sun stood still in the middle of the sky and delayed its setting for almost a
whole day.
the Books of the Wars of Yahweh [Num. 21:14],
that is why it says in the Book of the Wars of Yahweh: '. . .Waheb near
Suphah and the gorges of the Arnon
While canonization was primarily a process, there were moments in which the
process was caught up and fixed by official declarations and policies. These
moments were marked by special circumstances and needs: personal
and national guidance in times of political-religious crisis (the break-up of the
Assyrian empire and Josiah’s decision to go it alone in the late 7th century
B.C.); the return from the Babylonian exile and the need for guidance in the
the Pseudepigrapha, apocryphal gospels, etc.) simply dropped by the
reconstitution of national and religious life in hostile surroundings; the fall of
Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the threat to Judaism of extinction, in part by the
rise of Christianity and its literature; the spread of Gnosticism in the church
before and during the time of Marcion in the second century. These were
times when the community officially reaffirmed its effective traditions and
established the canon or list of the books which were considered as belonging
to this tradition.
Stages in the Fixing of the Old Testament Canon
1. The Recognition of the Authority of Deuteronomy
Upon discovery of this book (or part of it) in the temple in 622 B.C., King
Josiah recognized its authority as the word of Moses and of God and based a
sweeping reform on its law (II Kings 22:3-23:25).
The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, 'I have found the Book
of the Law in theTemple of Yahweh.' And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan,
who read it.
Shaphan the secretary went to the king, reporting furthermore to him as
follows, 'Your servants have melted down the silver which was in
the Temple and have handed it over to the masters of works attached to
the Temple of Yahweh.'
Then Shaphan the secretary informed the king, 'The priest Hilkiah has
given me a book'; and Shaphan read it aloud in the king's presence.
On hearing the words of the Book of the Law he tore his clothes.
Then the king gave the following order to the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam son of
Shaphan, Achbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the
king's minister:
'Go and consult Yahweh on behalf of me and the people about the words of
the book that has been discovered; for Yahweh's furious wrath has been
kindled against us because our ancestors disobeyed the word of Yahweh by
not doing what this book says they ought to have done.'
The Pentateuch in its present form seems to have been completed in the fifth
century B.C. and accepted officially as God’s word for the nation by Ezra and
his contemporaries in the fifth or early fourth century (Neh. 8:1-10:39).
2. The Exaltation of “the Law” (the Torah, the Pentateuch)
all the people gathered as one man in the square in front of the Water Gate,
and asked the scribeEzra to bring the Book of
the Law of Moses which Yahweh had prescribed for Israel.
Accordingly, on the first day of the seventh month, the priest Ezra brought
the Law before the assembly, consisting of men, women and all those old
enough to understand.
In the square in front of the Water Gate, in the presence of the men and
women, and of those old enough to understand, he read from the book from
dawn till noon; all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
Some sources of the Pentateuch certainly were drawn together much earlier
than this time and undoubtedly possessed authoritative status in the
community that used them, altered and added to them, and passed them
Most scholars today believe that the Pentateuch was essentially complete by
about 1000 B.C. but was revised in minor ways until the time of Ezra. Again,
most scholars today agree that Ezra fixed the completed Pentateuch as the
basis of the life of the nation around 400 B.C.
3. The Fixing of the Canon of the Prophets
We have no knowledge here. It cannot have occurred before the time of
Malachi (the last of the minor, prophets), that is, about 450 B.C. Once again, it
may have occurred as late as about 200 B.C. The apocryphal book
Ecclesiasticus (the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach) of the second century
B.C. refers in a clear-cut way to “the law and the prophets” as well as to “the
other books of our fathers.”
Many of the books of both Former and the Later Prophets undoubtedly had
been recognized as authoritative for a long time before the closing of the
collection. Disciples of the prophets gathered together their masters’
teachings, added to them, and promulgated them in their respective
communities, where they were heard and applied to ongoing life.
The Jews of Alexandria who had adopted Greek culture translated the Old
Testament into Greek. In this way they defined the list of the third section of
the Jewish Bible or The Writings. This translation into Greek is known as the
Septuagint, or the Bible of the 70 since it was believed that the translation was
done by 70 scholars. The Jews in Palestine had not yet reached a decision
about the list of books that formed the Writings.
4. The Selection of “the Writings”
In Jewish circles of the time of Jesus much literature not in the Law and the
Prophets also was read, including the eleven books now in “the Writings.”
This is clear from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Apparently no attempt was made to
draw up a list of approved books from this miscellaneous literature until late in
the first and in the early second century A.D.
The crisis that led the fixing of the last division of the canon undoubtedly was
the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70, the threatened
extinction of Judaism, whose revolutionary wing (the Zealots) had been
inflamed against the Romans by questionable (apocalyptic) books, and the
rise of Christianity with a literature that was regarded by Jewish leaders as
heretical. Even the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) had fallen into
disfavour with Jews because of its popularity in the Christian Church.
About A.D. 90 rabbis held discussions at a town in south-western Judah
called Jamnia about some of “the Writings,” especially whether such books as
Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon should be included. These discussions
embraced no review of all the books in this category, as almost all of them
had been in existence for several centuries and had gained status as
authoritative writings. Debate about Esther and parts of Ezekiel went on after
Jamnia and were resolved affirmatively by about the middle of the second
century A.D. Thereafter, the canon was fixed for all time.
5. Standards by Which Jews Judged Their Books
Josephus (A.D. 37-100) gives us the best insight about how the Jews of his
time looked at their sacred literature. He held that books, to be
“justly accredited,” had to be written by inspired prophets during the prophetic
age, which he says ended with Artaxerxes (in the Persian period). Books
written after that time have “not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the
earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets”
(Contra Apionem I). And the books were not discrepant and inconsistent with
one another, he says.
It was in the synod of Jamnia (90AD) that Jewish authorities officially defined
the list of the Writings. They left out the following books: Baruch, Tobit, Judith,
The Books of the Maccabees, Wisdom & Sirach. This was in 90 AD, after the
destruction of Jerusalem by Titus (72AD). The Christians had been expelled
from Jerusalem even before that date. They had already spread in the
Roman Empire and adopted Greek as their language of culture and for the
Thus prophetic (inspired) authorship and consistency with one another were
criteria for accredited books, according to Josephus. Contemporary scholars
have suggested other criteria: consistency with official Jewish faith and
practice; and general acceptance in the community of faith.
Christians made use of the Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint.
After Jamnia, some Fathers of the Church started having second thoughts
about the books left out by Jamnia. Notwithstanding this, St Jerome translated
the whole list of the Septuagint into the Latin Vulgate at the request the
bishops, even though he expressed doubts about their canonicity. St
Augustine in his book “on Christian Doctrine, includes these books with the
Old Testament Writings, even though he agrees that they do not form part of
the Hebrew Bible. This dilemma was settled by the 6 th century and the first
official declaration was made by the Council of Florence 1441 and defined
dogmatically by the Council of Trent 1546. The Protestants, who left the
Church before the Council of Trent, do not accept these books and adopt the
list of books established at Jamnia.