The Canon Of The Old Testament

Are their lost books that should be in the Old Testament? Does the Old Testament contain books that should not be there? In a time when many are questioning the validity of the Bible, these are important questions. Answering these questions can give us faith and confidence that the Bible, as we have it today, is the inspired word of God. We can have the assurance of knowing that God has preserved his word for mankind today. In this study we will examine the canon of the Old Testament.

The word "canon" is derived from an old carpenter's tool. It was a tool used to measure and, therefore, designates the rule or measure. In theology, "canon" simply means the books that are inspired by God. There have been many books and letters written by men of God over the years. We must be able to examine these books to see which ones are inspired and should be included in the Bible. So, when we talk about the canon of the Old Testament, we are talking about the collection of books that comprise the Old Testament, the books that are inspired by God. "Canon Law" are the guidelines used to determine which books are to be included in the canon and which are not.

In Isaiah 40:8 The Bible says, "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever." We have a promise from God that he would preserve his word through the ages. Has God kept this promise? Is there enough evidence to prove the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament are the books God intends for us to have? We believe there is. We will first look at the historical evidence.

In Romans 3:1-2 the Bible says, "What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit [is there] of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God." Here is inspired testimony that says God committed the keeping of his oracles (law) to the Jewish nation. This is a very strong endorsement of the Old Testament canon they had preserved up to the first century. If Israel had failed to preserve the Hebrew canon, would God have credited them with keeping his oracles? Surely not. Through strict scribal law and tedious copying methods, the Jews passed the Old Testament canon through the generations down to the first century.

We should not be amazed that the Jews preserved God's word so well through the centuries. In Psalms 78:1-7 God gave them the solemn charge to pass the law down from one generation to the next. So whatever canon of the Old Testament the Jews had passed down by the first century represents the inspired record God committed to their trust.

What canon did the Jews pass down to the first century? According to Josephus (a Jewish historian from the first century), they had twenty-two books they considered inspired. This Hebrew canon (the canon passed down by Israel) contains the same books included in the thirty-nine Old Testament books we have today! They counted some combinations of books as one. For example, our two books of First and Second Kings was counted as one book. The same is true of Judges and Ruth, First and Second Samuel, First and Second Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, Jeremiah and Lamentations, and so on. With our thrity-nine books, we have the same Old Testament books the Jews had in the first century. God committed these books to their care and they preserved them well.

There is additional historical testimony that verifies the content of the Old Testament text. In the late 1940's and early 1950's the caves of Qumran were discovered. Inside these caves are many ancient writings, some secular and some sacred. These caves were once inhabited by the Essenes, a sect of the Jews who withdrew to the desert during the Greek occupation of Judah. This means the writings date back as far as the third century b.c. Much of the scrolls contain portions of the Old Testament. Given the date when the Essene community began, it is reasonable to say that what they had is a fair representation of the canon passed down by the previous century. This practically takes their canon back to the time of the prophets.

With the exception of Esther, they had all the books we have in our Hebrew canon today. Although the caves also contain some Apocryphal books (discussed later), these books were not written until later, so the original Essene community could not have included them in their canon. The Hebrew canon is further verified by an examination of Secular Jewish writings of the third and second century b.c. For example, the Maccabean writings refer to Daniel. Although some suggest Daniel is a second century a.d. addition, and not part of the Hebrew canon, references such as these show clearly that Daniel's writing was considered canonical at least as early as the second or third century b.c. This is a good example of how history vindicates the canon of the Old Testament.

Now let's look at some internal evidence that supports the canon of the Old Testament. First, consider that Jesus divided the Old Testament into three sections. Look at Luke 24:44 where Jesus says, "These [are] the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and [in] the prophets, and [in] the psalms, concerning me." Jesus divided the Old testament into the law, the prophets and the psalms (poetry). This gives us a good idea of what books were canonical, according to Jesus. Jesus and others elsewhere summed up the Old Testament canon in two categories; the law and the prophets. See Matthew 5:17, Matthew 11:13, Luke 16:16, John 1:45, Acts 13:15, Acts 24:14, etc. Every Old Testament book we have today fits into the division of books Jesus placed on the Old Testament.

Additionally, other New Testament writers quoted Old Testament books or mentioned their authors by name. This too is an impressive endorsement of their authenticity. Luke 20:42, Acts 1:20 and Acts 13:33, 35 all refer to the Psalms. James 5:10-11 mentions Job. Mark 12:19 and Luke 20:28 speak of Moses' writings. Mark 12:26 refers to the book of Moses. Galatians 3:10 mentions the book of the law. Luke 4:17 mentions the book of Isaiah. Matthew 3:3, Mark 7:6, Acts 8:28, 30 and many others refer to Isaiah as a prophet. In Matthew 24:15 Jesus quoted Daniel. Matthew 16:14 speaks of Jeremiah as a prophet. Acts 7:42 refers to the book of the prophets. Countless other New Testament passages quote large sections of the Old Testament. All these references show that the canon of the Old Testament, as we have it today, is well supported in the writings of other inspired men.

What about the Apocrypha? "Apocrypha" means hidden. It is a collection of books some versions of the Bible include. The Catholic Bible includes six of them, and the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament made by seventy Jewish scholars) includes fourteen. They are also included in some of the earliest versions of our English Bible. Why are these not in most of our Bibles today? Should they be included in the canon of the Old Testament?

While they are in the Septuagint, they are not in the Hebrew canon passed down by Israel. The Jews of the first century rejected them as spurious. Some hold that the apostles used the Septuagint as a basis for some quotations. Even if they did, they never quoted the apocryphal books! As we learned earlier, God committed the keeping of his oracles to the Jews. Since the Jews, whom God trusted to care for his word, rejected the Apocryphal books, we are safe to do the same.

Does the fact these books are included in the Septuagint mean they are inspired? After all, the Septuagint was a work of the Jews wasn't it? Although Jewish scholars translated the Septuagint, it was commissioned in 280 b.c. by Ptolemy Philadelfus. He was an Egyptian king, not a Jew. Furthermore, the apocryphal books hadn't even been written when the Septuagint was first commissioned. Therefore, they could not have been included in the Septuagint at first. Why these books were included later is a mystery. Many first century Jews considered the Septuagint profane. Consequently, they would not have used it in their temple readings. They rejected the apocryphal books along with the Septuagint that included them. The Septuagint is an important and valuable Greek translation of the Old Testament, but it's inclusion of the Apocrypha does not mean the Jews accepted the Apocryphal books as canonical. These apocryphal books are important as secular history, but there is no reason to regard them as part of God’s inspired record.

God promised to preserve his word through the centuries, and he has done exactly that. History is replete with copies of the present canon at different points on the time line. Thousands of ancient manuscripts across the centuries contain the same books we have today. New Testament writers endorsed our Old Testament canon through a wealth of quotations and references. You can have complete confidence that when you pick up your Old Testament, you are holding the very books God wants you to have. To have the entirety of God's Old Testament, you need no more, and should have no less.