The development of the Old Testament canon: A short overview

              Have you ever wondered how the Bible came about? Have you ever been curious to know why certain books were included in the Bible while others were not? In this article, we seek to address these questions as we look at the development of the Old Testament Canon. It is the thesis of this article to lay out a clear historical overview of how we came to the completion of the Old Testament canon and how we can trust that the Old Testament we have today is truly the Word of God. Before commencing, there are a couple of preliminary considerations. It must be understood the principles behind determining the canon of scripture. Those principles are as follows: inspiration by God, recognition by men of God, and collection and preservation of the books by the people of God. These are the factors that must be considered in determining which books have their rightful place in the canon.

            In considering the development of the Old Testament canon consideration must be given to the progressive collection of the canon. In their book, A general introduction to the Bible, Norman Geisler and William Nix notes, “….the canon was completed no later than the second century B.C. and possibly as early as the fourth century B.C. In fact, a completed canon of Hebrew scriptures is evident from the testimony of the ‘prologue of Ecclesiasticus, Jesus, Philo, and Josephus well before A.D. 100. Furthermore, there is evidence that inspired books were added to the canon immediately as they written. Hence, the Old Testament canon was actually completed when the last book was written and added to it by the fourth century B.C.”[1] It also should be noted that the books of the Bible did not become inspired after they were written; they were inspired by God even before the words were penned.

            In regard to the Old Testament canon as we have it today we are compelled to accept the views of two Jewish scholars, namely, David Kimchi (1160-1232) and Elias Levita (1465-1549). It was the views of these scholars that the Old Testament canon was completed by Ezra and the members of the Great Synagogue in the fifth century before Christ. There is substantial evidence that makes this view both possible and accurate. Josephus held to the same threefold division of the Old Testament as seen in the Masoretic Canon. He also believed that the canon was completed during the reign of Artaxerxes. This time period also corresponds to the life of Ezra. In his book, Lectures in Systematic Theology, Henry C, Thiessen writes, “It seems likely that Ezra was the one who finally organized the sacred books of the Old Testament, since he is called ‘the scribe’ (Neh. 8:1 ; 12:36), ‘a scribe skilled in the law of Moses’ (Ezra 7:6), and ‘the scribe, learned in the words of the commandments of the Lord and His statutes to Israel’ (Ezra 7:11). Further, no more canonical writings were composed since the days of Artaxerxes, son of Xerxes, until New Testament times.”[2]

            In arriving at the completed Old Testament canon there is one rule of thumb that must be considered. This rule has to do with prophetic utterance. Multiple times in the New Testament and in the words of Jesus Himself, we see the adherence to the law and the prophets. The law and the prophets were considered as inspired scripture. There are is also evidence within the Old Testament that every book of the Old Testament were written by prophets. The books of Moses or the law were unquestioningly prophetic. Moses was a mediator between God and man. He was one whom God spoke with face to face. The major and minor prophets were obviously written by men who were known as prophets. These were men who held the office of prophet. The more controversial books of the Old Testament known as the ‘writings’ may not have been written by men who held the prophetic office, however, they are prophetic utterances. They were men who possessed the prophetic gift. The book of Daniel, for instance, is found in the ‘writings’ though Jesus called Daniel a prophet is Matthew 24:15. Solomon who wrote much of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon had visions from the Lord. The author of many of the Psalms, David, is referred to as a prophet in Acts 2:30. In 2 Samuel 23:2 and 1 Chronicles 28:19 we find David claiming that the Spirit of the Lord spoke through him.  “If there is a distinction between the prophetic office and the prophetic gift, it in no way affects the prophetic function, which was possessed by all of the Old Testament writers.”[3]

            In looking at the development of the canonization of the Old Testament, it must be taken into consideration the fact that the Old Testament as a whole is inspired by God and thus is the Word of God. This can also be said of the Old and New Testaments together. The Bible is a whole. It is one unit, one book. As a whole, it is the inspired Word of God. The books of the Old Testament themselves lay claim to being the Word of God. “The Old Testament was originally divided into two sections: the Law and the Prophets. Each of those sections was considered a unit; hence, the claim that holds for the section as a whole holds for every book in that section. On that basis, all of the books, Law and Prophets, are seen to claim divine authority.”[4] This can also be said of the books that are often classified as the ‘writings’. This claim is due to the fact that the Old Testament as a whole is a prophetic utterance. “Because a ‘prophetic utterance’ means an utterance of the Word of God, it follows that the Old Testament as a whole lay claim to be the divinely inspired Word of God, since the whole claims to be a prophetic utterance.”[5]

            The claim by the Old Testament itself that it is indeed inspired by God is also supported by the New Testament. Often in the New Testament there is the mentioning of the ‘scriptures’. This word is used around fifty times. In most every case, the term ‘scriptures’ refer to the Old Testament as a completed whole. When the first-century Christians used the word ‘scriptures’ they were primarily referring to the Old Testament canon. Here are a few of the New Testament references that lay claim to the inspiration of the Old Testament: Matthew 21:42, Matthew 22:29, Matthew 26:54 & 56, Acts 17:2, among many others. The phrase ‘it is written’ in the New Testament is also referring to the Old Testament as a whole. We also see phrases in the New Testament such as: ‘that is might be fulfilled’, ‘the law’, ‘the law and the prophets’, ‘the word of God’, ‘the oracles of God’, and ‘from Abel to Zechariah’ that all point to the whole of the Old Testament as inspired by God.

            A more exhaustive study may also be done concerning the history of the Old Testament canon and how it developed from the writing of the Pentateuch around 1500 B.C. to the final writings of the prophets some time before 400 B.C. However, the point here is to give us a feel for the weight of evidence supporting the Old Testament canon as inspired by God. Through the development of the Old Testament and the Bible as a whole, we find great assurance that the Bible is, in fact, the complete Word of the living God. Therefore, we must treat is as such and obey it’s commands as coming directly from God.

[1] Geisler & Nix, A general introduction to the Bible, Moody, 1986. p. 237

[2] Thiessen, Henry C. Lectures is Systematic Theology, Eerdmans. 1979. p. 60

[3] Geisler & Nix, A general introduction to the Bible, Moody, 1986. p. 75

[4] Geisler & Nix, A general introduction to the Bible, Moody, 1986. p. 75


[5] Geisler & Nix, A general introduction to the Bible, Moody, 1986. p. 75


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