Can We Trust The Old Testament Canon?
At its core, Truth Remains exists to foster a greater love and understanding for God, who reveals himself through Scripture. If the Bible serves as direct revelation from God, then the following question takes on an eternal importance: Who decided what would go in the Bible?
While at the very least interesting to the curious secular observer, understanding how the Biblical canon was formed should be of special interest to Protestants. The Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura (Latin for “by Scripture alone”) falls apart if we can’t trust the Scripture itself.
With that in mind, Truth Remains will take a brief look at the formation of the Old and New Testaments in separate blog posts. This first post, as you might have already suspected from reading the title, will be about the Old Testament.
Who determined the Old Testament Canon?
The question stated above in bold, while valid in one sense, relies on a false premise. It is valid in that at some point after the Jewish exile in Babylon, it does seem “likely that an inspired Jewish editor pulled the texts together, edited them, and arranged them” into what constitutes the Old Testament today. The false premise of the question arises when one assumes that this editor/compiler (possibly Ezra) also determined the canonicity of the different texts.
A better question would be, “How and when did God’s people recognize the texts that God had established as authoritative?” In some cases, it was not difficult. God spoke directly with Moses throughout the Exodus, making whatever he recorded (the first five books of the Bible) instantaneously authoritative. The Israelites entered the Promised Land with a concrete, rock-solid scriptural authority.
Over the next millennia, God’s people continued to recognize God’s revelation and write it down for future generations. From the time of Moses to Malachi, God utilized prophets as the primary means of speaking to His people. This brings up another question: How did the Israelites determine who was a genuine prophet? Two basic principles arose. The prophet’s words needed to align with the covenants God made with the people of Israel, and the prophet’s words needed to come true. The entire book of Nahum, for example, predicts the imminent destruction of the Assyrian Empire, who he said would “afflict [Judah] no more]." This, of course, came to pass – the Babylonian Empire wiped out the Assyrians at the end of the 7th century BC. With a valid prophecy, the book of Nahum soon found itself in the Biblical canon.
God’s people didn’t wait hundreds of years to determine the canonicity of something, either. Daniel read the writings of the prophet Jeremiah as the inspired Word of God, despite living mere decades after him.
Although it is impossible to pinpoint an exact date, sometime in the era of Ezra and Nehemiah (5th century BC) the Old Testament canon was complete. The Jews recognized that with the cessation of the prophets came the closing of the canon.
Jesus’ Bible and the Apocrypha
Do we really need the Old Testament? All Christians really need is the New Testament, right?
It would be extremely interesting to hear how Jesus would respond to such a question. My guess is that the Son of God would respond with a resounding “no.”
Jesus quotes from the Old Testament 78 times, and refers to it as the “Word of God" and “wisdom of God." Even as a young boy, Jesus intimately knew the scriptures and understood that they pointed to Him as the Messiah.
In terms of what books made up His Scripture, Jesus was quite clear. The Scriptures Jesus recognized began with Genesis and ended with Chronicles – important, because only the Hebrew canon and Aramaic canon end with Chronicles. Furthermore, Jesus recognized the Scriptures as broken up into three parts, something only found in the Hebrew and Aramaic canon.
Why does this matter? Understanding what Jesus considered canonical provides an answer to a contentious issue regarding the formation of the Old Testament – the Apocrypha.
In addition to the 39 books of the Old Testament found in Protestant Bibles, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches include 15 or so extra texts within or at the end of their Old Testaments. These include 1, 2 & 3 Maccabees, Baruch, the letter of Jeremiah, Tobit and others.
The authors of these deuterocanonical (Greek for “second canon”) texts never intended for their writings to be grouped with the divinely inspired books of the Bible. In fact, the author of 1 Maccabees points out that he lived in a time when “the prophets ceased to appear."
If this is the case, then how did they end up in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Bibles?
The answer lies in the Septuagint, a monumental translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek finished 200 to 300 years before Christ. For reasons unknown, the editors of the Septuagint included a number of texts outside of the normal Hebrew and Aramaic canon. When Jerome translated the Bible into Latin nearly 400 years after Christ, he included these extra writings, dubbing them the “Apocrypha.” For Catholics, the Apocrypha became canonical at the first session of the Council of Trent (1545-47).
While the Apocryphal writings are useful for historical reference (particularly 1 and 2 Maccabees, which chronicle the Jewish revolt against the Romans in the 2nd century BC), they are not divinely inspired. The authors of the New Testament never quoted the Apocrypha as Scripture, despite citing the Greek Septuagint two-thirds of the time when quoting the Old Testament. The Jews never accepted them as part of the Hebrew Scriptures – they knew that the time of inspired prophecy had ended.
Most importantly, as stated before, Jesus understood the Old Testament canon to be closed by the time of His ministry. As His followers, we must believe the same.
The story of the Old Testament canon is not one of a group of medieval European monks sifting through a collection of dusty old manuscripts. Rather, it is one that takes place over a millennium, with the ancient Israelites and Jews merely recognizing what God had already established as authoritative.
The Christian can have confidence in the Old Testament as God’s revelation to His chosen people. This is not the end of the story, however. 400 years after Malachi and the closing of the Old Testament canon, God revealed Himself not only through prophets and visions, but through flesh and blood.
Read how the New Testament canon was recognized here.
 Jones, Timothy Paul. How We Got the Bible. Torrance, CA: Rose Publishing, 2015. Pg. 30.
 Ibid. Pg. 52.
 Nahum 1:12
 Daniel 9: 2-19
 John 10:35
 Luke 11:49
 Luke 2:47
 Luke 2:49
 Matthew 23:35
 Jones. How We Got the Bible. Pg. 59.
 Luke 24:44
 Only the Russian and Greek Orthodox Church accept 3 Maccabees as canonical.
 1 Maccabees 9:27
 Jones. How We Got the Bible. Pg. 58.