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Canon of the Old Testament

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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1. Explanation of terms . The word ‘Testament’ is the Eng. tr. [Note: translate or translation.] Of the Gr. Diathçkç , which in its turn represents the Heh. Berîth or ‘Covenant.’ The epithet ‘Old’ was introduced by Christians after the NT had come into being. Jews recognize no NT, and have a polemic interest in avoiding this designation of their Holy Scripture. The Gr. word kanôn , meaning primarily a measuring-rod, a rule, a catalogue, was applied by Christian authors of the 4th cent. to the list of books which the Church acknowledged to be authoritative as the source of doctrine and ethics. In investigating how the Hebrew race formed their Bible, these later appellations of their sacred books have to be used with the reservations indicated.

2. The three periods of formation . Briefly stated, the process of forming the OT Canon includes three main stages. Under the influence of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Law ( Torah ) as in the Pentateuch was set apart as Holy Scripture; at some date prior to b.c. 200, the Prophets ( Nebîîm ), including the prophetic interpretation of history in the four books Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings had been constituted into a second canonical group; by b.c. 132, most, though not all, of the remaining books ranked as Scripture. This third group was defined, and the OT Canon finally fixed, by the Synod of Palestinian Jews held at Jamnia, near Joppa, about the year a.d. 90.

3. Pre-canonical conditions

( a ) The art of writing . The formation of language and the invention of writing must precede the adoption of a sacred book. An illiterate race can have no Scripture. Israel’s language was in its main features an inheritance from the common ancestors of the Semites; even its religious vocabulary was only in part its own creation. As to writing, the Semites in Babylonia had used the cuneiform syllabic script, and Egypt had Invented the hieroglyphs before the Hebrews had arisen as a separate race. But, happily for the Canon, an alphabet had become the possession of some of the Semitic family before the Hebrews had anything to put on record. The provincial governors of Canaan about b.c. 1400 sent their reports to Egypt in Babylonian cuneiform; whereas Mesha, king of Moab, and Panammu, king of Ya’di in North Syria, in extant Inscriptions from about b.c. 900, make use of an Aramaic alphabet. After b.c. 1400, and some time before b.c. 900, must therefore be placed the genesis of the Hebrew alphabet.

( b ) Absence of any precedent . In the case of other sacred books, the influence of a historical precedent has contributed to their adoption. Recognizing the OT, Christians were predisposed to use a literary record in preserving the revelation they had received. Similarly Islam admitted the superiority of ‘the people of a book’ (Jews and Christians), and were easily induced to accord like sanctity to their own Koran. But such a precedent did not come into operation in the early religion of Israel. It is true that the Code of Hammurabi ( c [Note: circa, about.] . b.c. 2200) was recorded on stone, and publicly set forth as the rule of civil life in Babylonia. But this method of regulating communal life can hardly have affected the earliest legislators in Israel. The relation of the Code of Hammurabi to the Mosaic Laws appears to be correctly indicated by Mr. Johns: ‘The coexisting likenesses and differences argue for an independent recension of ancient custom deeply influenced by Babylonian law.’ Egypt also had literature before Moses, but the Hebrews appear to have acted on an independent initiative in producing and collecting their religious literature. The OT Canon is thus peculiar in being formed as the first of its kind.

( c ) Religious experience . Other conditions of a less general kind have also to be noted. The religious leaders of the people must have had definite convictions as to the attributes of Jehovah before they could judge whether any given prophet or document were true or false. The life depicted in the book of Genesis reveals a non-writing age, when religious experience and unwritten tradition were the sole guides to duty. The Sinaitic legislation, although it formed the basis of national life, did not till late in the monarchy penetrate the popular consciousness. Mosaic Law provided that Divine guidance would be given through the voice of prophets and of priests ( Deuteronomy 18:18; Deuteronomy 19:17; Deuteronomy 21:5; Deuteronomy 24:8 ); with these living sources of direction, it would be less easy to feel dependence on a book. The symbolism of a sacrificial system compensated for the want of literature. It was only after books of various kinds had become prevalent that the utility of writing began to be appreciated. Isaiah ( Isaiah 30:8 ), about b.c. 740, perceives that what is inscribed in a book will be permanent and indisputable. On the other hand, Hosea ( Hosea 8:12 ), about b.c. 745, sees a limit to the efficacy of a copious literature. The exponents of the traditional Law appear to have applied it with arbitrary freedom. Even a high priest in Josiah’s reign had apparently had no occasion to consult the Law-book for a long period. Variations appear in the reasons annexed even to the Decalogue; and the priests who offered incense to the brazen serpent in the Temple in the days of Hezekiah cannot have regarded the Tables of the Law in the light of canonical Scripture.

4. Josiah’s reformation . The first trace of a Canon is to be found in the reign of King Josiah about b.c. 621. By this time the Northern Kingdom had disappeared with the Fall of Samaria (b.c. 722). It had left behind, as its contribution to the future Bible, at least the works of Hosea and the Elohist historian. The prophets, Isaiah I., Amos, and Micah, had delivered their message a century ago, and their words were in the possession of their disciples. The fate of the ten tribes had vindicated the prophetic warnings. The beginnings of Israel’s history were made familiar by the beautiful narratives of the Jahwist historian. Many songs were known by heart, and contributed to the growth of a feeling that the nation had a Divine mission to fulfil. Laws, that had been kept for rare reference in the sanctuary, were studied by disciples of the prophets, and were expounded with a new sense of their Divine obligation. The annals of the monarchy had been duly recorded by the official scribes, but their religious significance was as yet unthought of. Other books, which afterwards disappeared, were also in circulation. Such were ‘the Book of the Wars of the Lord’ ( Numbers 21:14 ), and ‘the Book of Jashar’ ( Joshua 10:13 , 2 Samuel 1:18 ). In such conditions at Jerusalem there came about Josiah’s reformation, described in 2 Kings 22:1-20; 2 Kings 23:1-37 .

5. Inspiration recognized in the Bk. of Deuteronomy . A book identified on satisfactory grounds with our Deuteronomy (excluding possibly the preface and the appendix) was discovered in the Temple and read to the king. In consequence, Josiah convened a general assembly at Jerusalem, and read the words of the book to all the people. All parties agreed that this Lawbook should constitute a solemn league and coveoant between themselves and Jehovah. The grounds of its acceptance are its inherent spiritual power, the conviction it produced that it truly expressed the will of Jehovah, and also its connexion with the great name of Moses. The book was not imposed merely by royal authority; the people also ‘stood to the covenant.’ These conditions combine to give Deuteronomy canonical authority of an incipient kind from that date onwards (b.c. 622).

6. Pentateuch made canonical . The next stage in the growth of the Canon is found in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (b.c. 457 444). Much had happened in the intervening 170 years. The captivity in Babylon (b.c. 586 536) intensified national feeling and made their books more precious to the exiles. Temple ceremonial had now no place in religious practice; and spiritual aspiration turned to prayer and reading, both public and private. Fresh expositions of the Mosaic Law were prepared by the prophet Ezekiel (b.c. 592 570), and by the anonymous priest who put the Law of Holiness ( Leviticus 17:1-16; Leviticus 18:1-30; Leviticus 19:1-37; Leviticus 20:1-27; Leviticus 21:1-24; Leviticus 22:1-33; Leviticus 23:1-44; Leviticus 24:1-23; Leviticus 25:1-55; Leviticus 26:1-46 ) into written form. Just as the Fall of Jerusalem in a.d. 70 supplied the Incentive for recording in the Mishna the oral tradition of the Pharisees, so in Babylon expatriation impelled the priestly families to write out their hereditary usages, thus forming the document known as the Priestly Code. The problem of suffering, national and individual, was considered in the work of the Second Isaiah and in the book of Job. The past history of Israel was edited so as to show the method of Divine Providence. The Restoration of the Temple (b.c. 516) and the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah began a new chapter in the story of Judaism. Many of the Jews remained in Babylon, and continued their activity in the study of the national literature. From Babylon they sent Ezra the scribe (b.c. 457) and Nehemiah (b.c. 444) with help for the Jerusalem community. Under the influence of these leaders the Pentateuch was made canonical ( Nehemiah 8:1-18; Nehemiah 9:1-38; Nehemiah 10:1-39 ). This work had been formed by constructing a ‘Harmony’ of the various expositions of Mosaic Law ( Exodus 20:1-26; Exodus 21:1-36; Exodus 22:1-31; Exodus 23:1-33 , Deut., Leviticus 17:1-16; Leviticus 18:1-30; Leviticus 19:1-37; Leviticus 20:1-27; Leviticus 21:1-24; Leviticus 22:1-33; Leviticus 23:1-44; Leviticus 24:1-23; Leviticus 25:1-55; Leviticus 26:1-46 , and the Priestly Code) and combining these with the histories of the Jahwist and the Elohist. The initial cosmology shows the high plane of religious thought that had now been attained. Some opposition appears to have come from the priests, who favoured mixed marriages and a Samaritan alliance; but the people as a whole ‘make a sure covenant and write it. And our princes, our Levites, and our priests seal unto it’ ( Nehemiah 9:38 ). That this Canon included only the Torah is proved by the fact that the Samaritans, who were severed from Judaism shortly after Nehemiah’s time, never had any Canon beyond the Pentateuch. Their apocryphal Joshua does not prove that Ezra’s Canon was the Hexateuch. Had Joshua been attached to the Law, the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] version of it would have been less inaccurate. Nor is it easy to see how a book so solemnly adopted could ever after have been relegated to a secondary place.

7. Canon of the Prophets . The next addition to the Canon consists of the Prophets, reckoned as 8 books Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve (Minor Prophets) forming one book. No account of their canonization is available, and the process has to be inferred from what is known of the period. The books themselves give some guidance. Under the influence of Deut., history was studied so as to reveal the progress of a Divine purpose. The books of Kings record events down to about b.c. 560, hence their preparation for the Canon must have been some time later. Isaiah includes the works of the first and second of that name, besides chapters from later sources. The redaction of the whole must have been made at a time when the separate authorship was forgotten. Jeremiah (b.c. 627 586) is supplemented by extracts from the book of Kings written after 560. The Twelve include Malacbi, who wrote between b.c. 458 and 432. Jonah and Zechariah are also late, and the latter book has a supplement of uncertain date. Internal evidence thus implies that when the Law was made canonical, the prophets had not been carefully edited or collected into one group. The Chronicler, writing about b.c. 300, recognizes that the Law has become Holy Scripture, but he makes the freest use of the history in Samuel and Kings. After Malachi the people became well aware that the voice of true prophecy had ceased ( Zechariah 13:3 , Nehemiah 6:7; Nehemiah 6:14 , Psalms 74:9 , 1Ma 9:27 , etc.). The predictions of the prophets had been ominously vindicated by the course of history. Such observations would tend continually to increase the veneration for the prophetic literature. The rivalry of Hellenic culture after the cooquests of Alexander the Great ( c. [Note: . circa, about.] b.c. 300) may possibly have suggested to the Jews an Increase of their own sacred Canon. At all events, the canonization of the prophetic literature had become matter of past history by b.c. 200. This limit is fixed by the testimony of Jesus ben-Sira, who writes the book in the Apocrypha called Ecclesiasticus. His praise of the famous men in Israel (chs. 44 50) shows that the Law and the Prophets were invested with canonical authority in his day. The Lectionary of the Synagogue would quickly establish the unique position of the Law and the Prophets as Holy Scripture (cf. Acts 13:15; Acts 13:27 ).

8. The Hagiographa made canonical . The third division of the OT is called in Hebrew Kethûbhîm , i.e. ‘Writings.’ In Greek the name is Hagiographa , i.e. ‘Sacred Writings.’ In a Hebrew Bible these books are arranged in the following order:

1. The Poetical Books: Psalms, Proverbs, Job.

2. The Five Megilloth (‘Rolls’): Canticles, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther.

3. Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles.

This group is much more varied in form and substance than the first two parts of the Canon. Several of these books may have been prized as highly as the Prophets, though their inclusion in the Second Canon would have been incongruous. The Psalter, for instance, had been for long familiar through its use in Temple services; and its influence on religious life was great, apart from any declaration of canonicity. But as some Psalms ( e.g. 74, 79) appear to have been composed about b.c. 170 160, the final collection of the smaller hymnaries into the Psalter of five books cannot have been made before b.c. 150. The priestly summary of history in Chron., Ezr.-Neh. would be widely acceptable in an age when the Priestly Code was the dominant influence. The book about Daniel, published during the Maccabæan persecutions (b.c. 165), quickly won recognition and proved its religious worth.

( a ) Disputed books . A hesitating approval was extended to Esther, Canticles, and Eccleslastes, owing to the nature of their contents. Other books, apocalyptic and apocryphal, were competing for a place in the religious library. There is no means of showing how or when the third group was separated from other books. The conjecture is probable that the effort of Antiochus Epiphanes to destroy the copies of the Law may have evoked the determination to preserve the later religious literature by giving it a place in the Canon.

( b ) Prologue to Sirach . The earliest testimony to the existence of sacred books in addition to the Law and the Prophets is given in the Prologue to Ecclesiasticus. The grandson of ben-Sira wrote in Egypt about b.c. 132, and made a Greek translation of his kinsman’s ‘Wisdom.’ In the preface he refers three times to ‘the Law, the Prophets, and the other books of our fathers.’ He speaks of Greek versions of these books. But this statement does not say that the third group was definitely completed. In the 1st cent. a.d., the schools of Hillel and Shammal differed as to whether Ecclesiastes was in the Canon or not.

( c ) New Testament . The NT expresses a doctrine of Holy Scripture; it acknowledges a threefold division ( Luke 24:44 ); it implies that Chronicles was the last book in the roll of the OT ( Matthew 23:35 , Luke 11:51 ); but it does not quote Esther, Cant., Eccl., and leaves undecided the question whether these disputed books were as yet admitted to the Canon.

( d ) Philo . Philo of Alexandria (d. a.d. 40) acknowledges the inspiration of Scripture (the Mosaic Law pre-eminently), and quotes many of, but not nearly all, the OT books. His use of the Greek Apocrypha for information only, suggests, however, that he did know of a Palestinian limit to the third group.

( e ) Josephus . Josephus (a.d. 100), defending his earlier books against adverse reviews, maintains that Jewish records had been made by trained historians. The elegant inconsistencies of Greek narratives had no place in his authorities.

‘It is not the case with us,’ he says ( c. Apion . i. 8), ‘to have vast numbers of books disagreeing and conflicting with one another. We have but two-and-twenty, containing the history of all time, books that are justly believe din.… Though so great an interval of time has passed, no one has ventured either to add or to remove or to alter a syllable; and it is the instinct of every Jew from the day of his birth to consider these books as the teaching of God, to abide by them, and, if need be, cheerfully to lay down life in their behalf.’

The number 22 is probably due to his reckoning, with the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] , Ruth and Judges as one, and Lamentations and Jeremiah as one. It is less likely that he refused to count Cant, and Eccl. as Scripture. His words reveal the profound reverence now entertained for the OT as a whole, although individuals may still have cherished objections to particular books.

( f ) Synod of Jamnia . The completion of the Hebrew Canon must be associated with a synod held at Jamnia, near Joppa, where the Sanhedrin settled after Jerusalem was taken by Titus (a.d. 70). The popularity of the Alexandrian OT, including Apocrypha, and the growing influence of NT books caused the Rabbinical teachers to remove all doubt as to the limits of their Scripture. ‘All Holy Scriptures defile the hands (the Hebrew phrase for ‘are canonical’): Canticles and Eccleslastes defile the hands.’ Such was the dictum at Jamnia ( c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 90) to which Rabbi’ Akiba (d. a.d. 135) appealed in dismissing the possibility of reopening discussion on the limits of the Canon.

9. Text . The Hebrew Bible was now complete. Elaborate precautions were taken to secure an unchangeable text; and a system of vowel-signs was invented some centuries later to preserve the old pronunciation. It has been considered strange that the oldest dated MS of the OT should be so recent as a.d. 916, whereas the Greek Bible and NT are found in MSS of the 4th and 5th centuries. This may be due to the requirement of the Synagogue that the copy in use should be perfect, and that any roll deficient in a word or letter should be suppressed, if not destroyed. The vigilant care of copies in use lessened the interest in superseded MSS.

10. Relation of the Church to the OT . The NT freely acknowledges Divine inspiration in the OT. Such a formula as ‘All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet’ ( Matthew 1:22 ), Implies that the Supreme Disposer of events had Intimated His purpose through the prophets. Posterity, therefore, rightly apprehends any occurrence when it has detected its place in the scheme of things foretold by the prophets. But it is also recognized that Scripture may be misapplied, and that therefore criticism is essential. The Interpretation of the OT must differ among Jews and Christians. The logic of events cannot be Ignored, and the Advent of the Messiah cannot be treated as a negligible accident. The attitude of our Lord has the effect of making the OT a subordinate standard as compared with His own words and the teaching of the Apostles. He did not report the word of the Lord as received by vision or prophecy; in His own name He supplied what was wanting in Law and Prophets. He did not pronounce any book in Itself adequate to determine the communion between the Living God and living men; all Scripture must be illuminated by the testimonium Spiritus Sancti . The 24 Hebrew books are valid for the Church only in so far as their authority is sanctioned by the NT. But, subject to this limitation, the OT remains ‘profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for Instruction which is in righteousness’ ( 2 Timothy 3:16 ).

D. M. Kay.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Canon of the Old Testament'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible.​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​c/canon-of-the-old-testament.html. 1909.