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Bible Encyclopedias
Canon of the Old Testament

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

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kan´un :

I. Introductory

1. The Christian Term "Canon"

2. The Corresponding Hebrew Expression

3. The "Hidden Books" of the Jews

4. The Determining Principle in the Formation of the Canon

5. The Tripartite Division of the Old Testament

6. How Account for the Tripartite Division?

II. Examination of the Witnesses

1. The Old Testament's Witness to Itself (circa 1450-444 bc)

2. The Samaritan Pentateuch (circa 432 bc)

3. The Septuagint Version (circa 250-150 bc)

4. Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach (circa 170 bc)

5. The Prologue to Ecclesiasticus (circa 132 bc)

6. 1 and 2 Maccabees (between 125 and 70 bc)

7. Philo (circa 20 bc-50 ad)

8. The New Testament as a Witness (circa 50-100 ad)

9. 4 Esdras (circa 81-96 ad)

10. Josephus' "Contra Apionem" (circa 100 ad)

11. The Councils of Jamnia (90 and 118 ad)

12. The Talmud (200-500 ad)

13. Jewish Doubts in the 2nd Century ad

14. Summary and Conclusion

III. The Canon in the Christian Church

1. In the Eastern or Oriental Church

2. In the Western Church


I. Introductory

The problem of how we came by 39 books known as Old Testament "Scripture" is a purely historical investigation. The question involved is, not who wrote the several books, but who made them into a collection, not their origin or contents, but their history; not God's part, but man's. Our present aim, accordingly, must be to trace the process by which the various writings became "Scripture."

1. The Christian Term "Canon"

The word "canon" is of Christian origin, from the Greek word κανών , kanō̇n , which in turn is probably borrowed from the Hebrew word, קנה , ḳāneh , meaning a reed or measuring rod, hence, norm or rule. Later it came to mean a rule of faith, and eventually a catalogue or list. In present usage it signifies a collection of religious writings Divinely inspired and hence, authoritative, normative, sacred and binding. The term occurs in Galatians 6:16; 2 Corinthians 10:13-16; but it is first employed of the books of Scripture in the technical sense of a standard collection or body of sacred writings, by the church Fathers of the 4th century; e.g. in the 59th canon of the Council of Laodicea (363 ad); in the Festal Epistle of Athanasius (365 ad); and by Amphilochius, archbishop of Iconium (395 ad).

2. The Corresponding Hebrew Expression

How the ancient Hebrews expressed the conception of canonicity is not known; but it is safe to say that the idea, as an idea, existed long before there was any special phrase invented to express it. In the New Testament the word "Scriptures" conveys unquestionably the notion of sacredness (Matthew 21:42; John 5:39; Acts 18:24 ). From the 1st century ad and following, however, according to the Talmud, the Jews employed the phrase "defile the hands." Writings which were suitable to be read in the synagogue were designated as books which "defile the hands." What this very peculiar oriental expression may have originally signified no one definitely knows. Probably Leviticus 16:24 gives a hint of the true interpretation. According to this passage the high priest on the great Day of Atonement washed not only when he put on the holy garments of his office, but also when he put them off. Quite possibly, therefore, the expression "defile the hands" signified that the hands which had touched the sacred writings must first be washed before touching aught else. The idea expressed, accordingly, was one akin to that of taboo. That is to say, just as certain garments worn by worshippers in encircling the sacred Kaaba at Mecca are taboo to the Mohammedans of today, i.e. cannot be worn outside the mosque, but must be left at the door as the worshippers quit the sanctuary, so the Hebrew writings which were fit to be read in the synagogue rendered the hands of those who touched them taboo, defiling their hands, as they were wont to say, so that they must first be washed before engaging in any secular business. This seems to be the best explanation of this enigmatical phrase. Various other and somewhat fanciful explanations of it, however, have been given: for example, to prevent profane uses of worn-out synagogue rolls (Buhl); or to prevent placing consecrated grain alongside of the sacred rolls in the synagogues that it might become holy, as the grain would attract the mice and the mice would gnaw the rolls (Strack, Wildeboer and others); or to prevent the sacred, worn-out parchments from being used as coverings for animals (Graetz); or to "declare the hands to be unclean unless previously washed" (Fürst, Green). But no one of these explanations satisfies. The idea of taboo is more likely imbedded in the phrase.

3. The "Hidden Books" of the Jews

The rabbins invented a special phrase to designate rolls that were worn- out or disputed. These they called genūzı̄m , meaning "hidden away." Cemeteries filled with Hebrew manuscripts which have long been buried are frequently found today in Egypt in connection with Jewish synagogues. Such rolls might first be placed in the genı̄zāh or rubbish chamber of the sanctuary. They were not, however, apocryphal or uncanonical in the sense of being extraneous or outside the regular collection. For such the Jews had a special term ṣephārı̄m ḥı̄cōnı̄m , "books that are outside." These could not be read in the synagogues. "Hidden books" were rather worn-out parchments, or canonical rolls which might by some be temporarily disputed. See APOCRYPHA .

4. The Determining Principle in the Formation of the Canon

Who had the right to declare a writing canonical? To this question widely divergent answers have been given. According to a certain class of theologians the several books of the Old Testament were composed by authors who were conscious not only of their inspiration but also that their writings were destined to be handed down to the church of future generations as sacred. In other words each writer canonized, as it were, his own writings. For example, Dr. W. H. Green ( Canon , 35 f, 106, 110) says: "No formal declaration of their canonicity was needed to give them sanction. They were from the first not only eagerly read by the devout but believed to be Divinely obligatory ... Each individual book of an acknowledged prophet of Yahweh, or of anyone accredited as inspired by Him to make known His will, was accepted as the word of God immediately upon its appearance.... Those books and those only were accepted as the Divine standards of their faith and regulative of their conduct which were written for this definite purpose by those whom they believed to be inspired of God. It was this which made them canonical. The spiritual profit found in them corresponded with and confirmed the belief in their heavenly origin. And the public official action which further attested, though it did not initiate, their canonicity, followed in the wake of the popular recognition of their Divine authority.... The writings of the prophets, delivered to the people as a declaration of the Divine will, possessed canonical authority from the moment of their appearance.... The canon does not derive its authority from the church, whether Jewish or Christian; the office of the church is merely that of a custodian and a witness." So likewise Dr. J. D. Davis (Pres. and Ref. Review , April, 1902, 182).

On the contrary, Dillmann (Jahrb. für deutsche Theol ., III, 420) more scientifically claims that "history knows nothing of the individual books having been designed to be sacred from their origin.... These books bore indeed in themselves from the first those characteristics on account of which they were subsequently admitted into the sacred collection, but yet always had first to pass through a shorter or longer period of verification, and make trial of the Divine power resident within them upon the hearts of the church before they were outwardly and formally acknowledged by it as Divine books." As a matter of fact, the books of the Old Testament are still on trial, and ever will be. So far as is known, the great majority of the writers of Holy Scripture did not arbitrarily hand over their productions to the church and expect them to be regarded as canon Scripture. Two parties are involved in the making of canonical Scripture - the original authors and the church - both of whom were inspired by the same Spirit. The authors wrote inspired by the Divine Spirit, and the church ever since - J ewish and Christian alike - has been inspired to recognize the authoritative character of their writings. And so it will be to the end of time. "We cannot be certain that anything comes from God unless it bring us personally something evidently Divine" (Briggs, The Study of Holy Scripture , 162).

5. The Tripartite Division of the Old Testament

The Jews early divided the Old Testament writings into three classes: (1) The Tōrāh , or Law; (2) The Nebhı̄'ı̄m , or Prophets; and (3) The Kethūbhı̄m , or Writings, called in Greek the Hagiographa . The Tōrāh included the 5 books of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), which were called "the Five-fifths of the Law." The Nebhı̄'ı̄m embraced (a ) The four so-called Former Prophets, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, counted as one book, 1 and 2 Kings, also counted as one book; and (b ) The four so-called Latter Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets, counted as one book; a total of 8 books. The Kethūbhı̄m , or Writings, were 11 in all, including Psalms, Proverbs, and Job, the five Meghillōth or Rolls (Canticles, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther), Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, counted as one book, and 1 and 2 Chronicles, also counted as one book; in all 24 books, exactly the same as those of the Protestant canon. This was the original count of the Jews as far as we can trace it back. Later certain Jewish authorities appended Ruth to Judges, and Lamentations to Jer, and thereby obtained the number 22, which corresponded to the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet; but this manner of counting was secondary and fanciful. Still later others divided Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah and Jeremiah-Lamentations into two books each respectively and thereby obtained 27, which they fancifully regarded as equivalent to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet plus 5, the number of letters having a peculiar final form when standing at the end of a word. Jerome states that 22 is the correct reckoning, but he adds, "Some count both Ruth and Lamentations among the Hagiographa, and so get 24." 4 Esdras, which is the oldest (85-96 ad) witness to the number of books in the Old Testament, gives 24.

6. How Account for the Tripartite Division?

The answer to the question of how to account for the tripartite division involves the most careful investigation of the whole process by which the canon actually took shape. If the entire canon of the Old Testament were formed, as some allege, by one man, or by one set of men, in a single age, then it is obvious that the books must have been separated into three groups on the basis of some material differences in their contents. If, on the other hand; the process of canonization was gradual and extended over several generations, then the various books were separated from one another probably because one section of the canon was closed before certain other books of similar character were written. At any rate it is difficult to see why Kings and Chronicles are not included in the same division, and especially strange that Daniel does not stand among the prophets. To explain this mystery, medieval Jews were wont to say that "the Prophets were inspired by the spirit of prophecy, whereas the Writings by the Holy Spirit," implying different degrees of inspiration. But this is a distinction without a difference, the Holy Spirit and the spirit of prophecy are one and the same. Modern Protestants distinguish between the donum propheticum and the munus propheticum , i.e. between the gift and the office of prophecy. They allow that Daniel possessed the gift of prophecy, but they deny that he was Divinely appointed to the office of prophet. But compare Matthew 24:15 , which speaks of "Daniel the prophet," and on the other hand, Amos 7:14 , in which Amos resents being considered a prophet. Oehler modifies this explanation, claiming that the threefold division of the canon corresponds to the three stages of development in the religion of Israel, namely, Mosaism, Prophetism, and Hebraism. According to Oehler, the Law was the foundation of the entire canon. From it there were two lines of development, one objective, the Prophets, the other subjective, the Writings. But Oehler's theory does not satisfactorily account for Ezra and Nehemiah and Chronicles, being in the third division; for in what sense can they be said to be more subjective than Judges, Samuel, and Kings? The Septuagint version (250-150 bc) takes no notice of the tripartite division. The true solution probably is that the process was gradual. When all the witnesses have been examined, we shall probably discover that the Law was canonized first, the Prophets considerably later, and the Writings last of all. And it may further become evident that the two last divisions were collected synchronously, and hence, that the tripartite divisions of the canon are due to material differences in their contents as well as to chronology.

II. Examination of the Witnesses

1. The Old Testament's Witness to Itself (Circa 1450-444 bc)

Though the Old Testament does not tell us anything about the processes of its own canonization, it does furnish valuable hints as to how the ancient Hebrews preserved their writings. Thus in Exodus 40:20 it is stated that the "testimony," by which is meant the two tables of the Law containing the Ten Commandments, was put into the Ark of the Covenant for safe-keeping. In Deuteronomy 31:9 , Deuteronomy 31:24-26 , the laws of Deuteronomy are said to have been delivered to the sons of Levi, and by them deposited "by the side of the ark ... that it may be there for a witness against thee." Such language indicates that the new lawbook is regarded "as a standard of faith and action" (Driver, Deuteronomy , 343). According to 1 Kings 8:9 , when Solomon brought the Ark up from the city of David to the Temple, the two tables were still its only contents, which continued to be carefully preserved. According to 2 Kings 11:12 , when Joash was crowned king, Jehoiada the high priest is said to have given (literally "put upon") him "the testimony," which doubtless contained "the substance of the fundamental laws of the covenant," and was regarded as "the fundamental charter of the constitution" (compare H. E. Ryle, Canon of the Old Testament 45). Likewise in Proverbs 25:1 , it is stated that a large number of proverbs were copied out by Hezekiah's men. Now all these, and still other passages which might be summoned, witness to the preservation of certain portions of the Old Testament. But preservation is not synonymous with canonization. A writing might easily be preserved without being made a standard of faith and conduct. Nevertheless the two ideas are closely related; for, when religious writings are sedulously preserved it is but natural to infer that their intrinsic value was regarded as correspondingly precious.

Two other passages of paramount importance remain to be considered. The first is 2 Kings 22:8 , describing the finding of the "Book of the Law," and how Josiah the king on the basis of it instituted a religious reformation and bound the people to obey it precepts. Here is an instance in which the Law, or some portion of it (how much no one can say), is regarded as of normative and authoritative character. The king and his coadjutators recognize at once that it is ancient and that it contains the words of Yahweh (2 Kings 22:13 , 2 Kings 22:18 , 2 Kings 22:19 ). Its authority is undisputed. Yet nothing is said of its "canonicity," or that it would "defile the hands"; consequently there is no real ground for speaking of it as "the beginnings of the canon," for in the same historic sense the beginnings of the canon are to be found in Exodus 24:7 . The other passage of paramount importance is Nehemiah 8:8 f, according to which Ezra is said to have "read in the book, in the law of God, distinctly." Not only did Ezra read the Law; he accompanied it with an interpretation. This seems to imply, almost beyond question, that in Ezra's time (444 bc) the Law, i.e. the Pentateuch, was regarded as canonical Scripture. This is practically all that the Old Testament says about itself, though other passages, such as Zechariah 7:12 and Daniel 9:2 might be brought forward to show the deep regard which the later prophets had for the writings of their predecessors. The former of these is the locus classicus in the Old Testament, teaching the inspiration of the Prophets; it is the Old Testament parallel to 2 Timothy 3:16 .

2. The Samaritan Pentateuch (Circa 432 bc)

Chronologically the Old Testament is of course our most ancient witness. It brings us down to 444 bc. The next in order is the Samaritan Pentateuch, the history of which is as follows: About 432 bc, as we know from Nehemiah 13:28 and Josephus ( Ant. , XI, vii, 2 through viii, 4), Nehemiah expelled from the Jewish colony in Jerusalem Manasseh, the polygamous grandson of Eliashib the high priest and son-in-law of Sanballat. Manasseh founded the schismatic community of the Samaritans, and instituted on Mt. Gerizim a rival temple worship to that at Jerusalem. Of the Samaritans there still survive today some 170 souls; they reside in Shechem and are known as "the smallest religious sect in the world." It is true that Josephus, speaking of this event, confuses chronology somewhat, making Nehemiah and Alexander the Great contemporaries, whereas a century separated them, but the time element is of little moment. The bearing of the whole matter upon the history of the formation of the canon is this: the Samaritans possess the Pentateuch only; hence, it is inferred that at the time of Manasseh's expulsion the Jewish canon included the Pentateuch and the Pentateuch only. Budde (Encyclopaedia Biblica col. 659) says: "If alongside of the Law there had been other sacred writings , it would be inexplicable why these last also did not pass into currency with the Samaritans." Such a conclusion, however, is not fully warranted. It is an argument from silence. There are patent reasons on the other hand why the Samaritans should have rejected the Prophets, even though the y were already canonized. For the Samaritans would hardly adopt into their canon books that glorified the temple at Jerusalem. It cannot, accordingly, be inferred with certainty from the fact that the Samaritans accept the Pentateuch only, that therefore the Pentateuch at the time of Manasseh's expulsion was alone canonical, though it may be considered a reasonable presumption.

3. The Septuagint Version (Circa 250-150 bc)

The Septuagint version in Greek is the first translation of the Old Testament ever made; indeed the Old Testament is the first book of any note in all literature to receive the honor of being translated into another tongue. This fact in itself is indicative of the esteem in which it was held at the time. The work of translation was inaugurated by Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-247 bc) and probably continued for well-nigh a century (circa 250-150 bc). Aristeas, a distinguished officer of Ptolemy, records how it came about. It appears that Ptolemy was exceedingly fond of books, and set his heart on adding to his famous collection in Alexandria a translation of the Hebrew Pentateuch In order to obtain it, so the story goes, the king set free 198,000 Jewish slaves, and sent them with presents to Jerusalem to ask Eleazar the high priest for their Law and Jewish scholars capable of translating it. Six learned rabbis from each tribe (6 X 12 = 72) were sent. They were royally feasted; 70 questions were asked them to test their wisdom, and after 72 days of coöperation and conference they gave the world the Old Testament in the Greek language, which is known as the Septuagint version. To this fabulous story, Christian tradition adds that the rabbis did the work of translating in 72 (some say 36) separate cells on the island of Pharos, all working independently of each other, and that it was found at the expiration of their seclusion that each had produced a translation exactly word for word alike, hence, supernaturally inspired. Justin Martyr of the 2nd century ad says that he was actually shown by his Alexandrian guide the ruins of these Septuagint cells. The story is obviously a fable. The kernel of real truth at the bottom of it is probably that Ptolemy Philadelphus about the middle of the 3rd century bc succeeded in obtaining a translation of the Law. The other books were translated subsequently, perhaps for private use. The lack of unity of plan in the books outside the Law indicates that probably many different hands at different times were engaged upon them. There is a subscription, moreover, at the close of the translation of Est which states that Lysimachus, the son of Ptolemy in Jerusalem, translated it. But the whole was apparently completed before Jesus ben Sirach the younger wrote his Prologue to Ecclesiasticus (circa 132 bc).

Now the Septuagint version, which was the Bible of our Lord and His apostles, is supposed to have included originally many of the Apocryphal books. Furthermore, in our present Septuagint, the canonical and Apocryphal books stand intermingled and in an order which shows that the translators knew nothing of the tripartite division of later Judaism, or if they did they quite ignored it. The order of the books in our English Old Testament is of course derived from the Septuagint through the Vulgate (Jerome's Latin Bible , 390-405 ad) of Jerome. The books in the Septuagint are arranged as follows: Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, 1 and 2 Esdras, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Hosea, Amos, Micah, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zepheniah, Hagai, Zechariah, Malachi, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Baruch, Lamentations, Ep. Jer., Ezekiel, Daniel, 1, 2 and 3 Maccabees. On the basis of the Septuagint, Catholics advocate what is known as the "larger" canon of the Jews in Alexandria; Protestants, on the other hand, deny the existence of an independent canon in Alexandria in view of the "smaller" canon of the Jews in Palestine The actual difference between the Catholic and Protestant Old Testaments is a matter of 7 complete books and portions of two others: namely, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees, together with certain additions to Esther (Est 10:4 through 16:24) and to Daniel (Dan 3:24-90; The Song of the three Holy Children (Azariah); Susanna verse 13 and Bel and the Dragon verse 14). These Protestants reject as apocryphal because there is no sufficient evidence that they were ever reckoned as canonical by the Jews anywhere. The fact that the present Septuagint includes them is far from conclusive that the original Septuagint did, for the following reasons: (1) The design of the Septuagint was purely literary; Ptolemy and the Alexandrians were interested in building up a library. (2) All the extant manuscripts of the Septuagint are of Christian not Jewish origin. Between the actual translation of the Septuagint (circa 250-150 bc) and the oldest manuscripts of the Septuagint extant (circa 350 ad) there is a chasm of fully 500 years, during which it is highly possible that the so-called Apocryphal books crept in. (3) In the various extant manuscripts of the Septuagint, the Apocryphal books vary in number and name. For example, the great Vatican MS, which is probably "the truest representative which remains of the Alexandrian Bible," and which comes down to us from the 4th century ad, contains no Book of Maccabees whatever, but does include 1 Esdras, which Jerome and Catholics generally treat as apocryphal. On the other hand, the Alexandrian MS, another of the great manuscripts of the Septuagint, dating from the 5th century ad, contains not only the extra-canonical book of 1 Esdras, but 3 and 4 Maccabees, and in the New Testament the 1st and 2nd Epistles of Clement, none of which, however, is considered canonical by Rome. Likewise the great Sinaiticus MS, hardly less important than the Vatican as a witness to the Septuagint and like it dating from the 4th century ad, omits Baruch (which Catholics consider canonical), but includes 4 Macc, and in the New Testament the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas; all of which are excluded from the canon by Catholics. In other manuscripts, 3 Maccabees, 3 Esdras and The Prayer of Manasseh are occasionally included. The problem as to how many books the original Septuagint version actually included is a very complicated one. The probability is that it included no one of these variants. (4) Still another reason for thinking that there never existed in Egypt a separate or "larger" canon is the fact that during the 2nd century ad, the Alexandrian Jews adopted Aquila's Greek version of the Old Testament in lieu of their own, and it is known that Aquila's text excluded all Apocryphal books. Add to all this the fact that Philo, who lived in Alexandria from circa 20 bc till 50 ad, never quotes from One of these Apocryphal books though he often does from the canonical, and that Origen, who also resided in Alexandria (circa 200 ad), never set his imprimatur upon them, and it becomes reasonably convincing that there was no "larger" canon in Alexandria. The value of the evidence derived from the Septuagint, accordingly, is largely negative. It only indicates that when the translation of the Old Testament into Greek was made in Alexandria, the process of canonization was still incomplete. For had it been actually complete, it is reasonable to suppose that the work of translation would have proceeded according to some well-defined plan, and would have been executed with greater accuracy. As it is, the translators seem to have taken all sorts of liberties with the text, adding to the books of Est and Dan and omitting fully one-eighth of the text of Jer. Such work also indicates that they were not executing a public or ecclesiastical trust, but rather a private enterprise. Our necessary conclusion, therefore, is that the work of canonization was probably going on in Palestine while the work of translation was proceeding in Alexandria.

4. Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach (Circa 170 bc)

Our next witness is Jesus ben Sirach who (circa 170 bc) wrote a formidable work entitled Ecclesiasticus, otherwise known as Sir. The author lived in Jerusalem and wrote in Hebrew. His book is a book of Wisdom resembling Proverbs; some of his precepts approach the high level of the Gospel. In many respects Ecclesiasticus is the most important of all the Apocryphal books; theologically it is the chief monument of primitive Sadduceeism. In chapters 44 through 50, the author sings a "hymn to the Fathers," eulogizing the mighty heroes of Israel from Enoch to Nehemiah, in fact from Adam to Simon, including the most famous men described in the Old Testament, and making explicit mention of the Twelve Prophets. These facts would indicate that the whole or, at least, the most of the Old Testament was known to him, and that already in his day (180 bc) the so-called Minor Prophets were regarded as a special group of writings by themselves. What the value of Ecclesiasticus is as a witness, however, depends upon the interpretation one places on 24:33, which reads: "I will yet pour out doctrine as prophecy and leave it unto generations of ages." From this it is inferred by some that he feels himself inspired and capable of adding to the canon already in existence, and that, though he knew the full prophetic canon, he did not draw any very definite line of demarcation between his own work and the inspired writings of the prophets. For example, he passes over from the patriarchs and prophets of Israel to Simon the son of Onias, who was probably the high priest in his own time, making no distinction between them. But this may have been partly due to personal conceit; compare 39:12, "Yet more will I utter, which I have thought upon; and I am filled as the moon at the full." Yet, perhaps, in his day still only the Law and the Prophets were actually canonized, but alongside of these a body of literature was being gathered and gradually augmented of a nature not foreign to his own writings, and therefore not clearly marked off from literary compositions like his own. Yet to Sirach the Law is everything. He identifies it with the highest Wisdom; indeed, all wisdom in his judgment is derived from a study of the Law (compare Sirach 19:20-24; 15:1-18; 24:23; 2:16; 39:1).

5. The Prologue to Ecclesiasticus (Circa 132 bc)

The Prologue or Preface to Ecclesiasticus is our next witness to the formation of the canon. It was written by the grandson of Jesus ben Sirach, who bore his grandfather's name (circa 132 bc). Jesus ben Sirach the younger translated in Egypt his grandfather's proverbs into Greek, and in doing so added a Preface or Prologue of his own. In this Prologue, he thrice refers to the tripartite division of the Old Testament. In fact the Prologue to Ecclesiasticus is the oldest witness we have to the threefold division of the Old Testament books. He says: "Whereas many and great things have been delivered unto us by the Law and the Prophets, and by others,... my grandfather, Jesus, when he had given himself to the reading of the Law, and the Prophets, and other books of our Fathers, and had gotten therein good judgment (the Revised Version (British and American) "having gained great familiarity therein"), was drawn on also himself to write something pertaining to learning and wisdom.... For the same things uttered in Hebrew and translated into another tongue, have not the same force in them; and not only these things, but the Law itself, and the Prophets, and the rest of the books, have no small difference, when they are spoken in their own language." These are explicit and definite allusions to the threefold division of the Old Testament writings, yet only the titles of the first and second divisions are the technical names usually employed; the third is especially vague because of his use of the terms, "the other books of the Fathers," and "the rest of the books." However, he evidently refers to writings with religious contents; and, by "the other books of the Fathers," he can hardly be supposed to have meant an indefinite number, though he has not told us which they were or what was their number. From his further statement that his grandfather, having immersed himself in the Law and the Prophets, and other books of the Fathers, felt drawn on also himself to write something for the profit of others, it may be inferred that in his time there was as yet no definite gulf fixed between canonical writings and those of other men, and that the sifting process was still going on (compare W. R. Smith, OTJC 2, 178-179).

6. 1 and 2 Maccabee (Between 125 and 70 bc)

1 Maccabee was written originally in Hebrew; 2 Maccabee in Greek, somewhere between 125 and 70 bc. The author of 1 Maccabee is acquainted, on the one hand, with the deeds of John Hyrcanus (135 to 105 bc), and knows nothing on the other of the conquest of Palestine by Pompey (63 bc). The value of this book as a witness to the history of the canon centers about his allusions to Daniel and the Psalms. In 1 Macc 1:54, he tells how Antiochus Epiphanes "set up the abomination of desolation" upon the altar at Jerusalem, referring most likely to Daniel 9:24-27; and in 1 Macc 2:59, 60 he speaks of Ananias, Azarias and Misael, who by believing were saved from the fiery furnace, and of Daniel, who was delivered from the mouths of the lions (compare Daniel 1:7; Daniel 3:26; Daniel 6:23 ). From these allusions, it would seem as though the Book of Daniel was at that time regarded as normative or canonical. This is confirmed by 1 Macc 7:16, 17, which introduces a quotation from Psalm 79:2 , with the solemn formula, "According to the words which he wrote"; which would suggest that the Ps also were already canonical.

2 Maccabee, written circa 124 bc, also contains a couple of passages of considerable importance to us in this investigation. Both, however, are found in a spurious letter purporting to have been sent by the inhabitants of Judea to their fellow-countrymen residing in Egypt. The first passage (2 Macc 2:13) tells how Nehemiah, "founding a library, gathered together the acts of the kings, and the prophets, and of David, and the epistles of the kings concerning holy gifts." These words throw no special light upon the formation of the canon, but they do connect with the name of Nehemiah the preservation of public documents and historical records of national interest, and how he, as a lover of books, founded a library. This is in perfect agreement with what we know of Nehemiah's character, for he compiled the genealogy of Neh 7; besides, collection precedes selection. The other passage (2 Macc 2:14) reads: "In like manner also Judas gathered together all things that were lost by reason of the war we had, and they remain with us." Though found in a letter, supposed to be spurious, there is every reason for believing this statement to be true. For when Antiochus, the arch enemy of the nation, sought to stamp out the religion of the Jews by destroying their books (compare 1 Macc 1:56, 57), what would have been more natural for a true patriot like Judas than to attempt to re-collect their sacred writings? "This statement, therefore," as Wildeboer says, "may well be worthy of credence" ( The Origin of the Canon of the Old Testament , 40). Though it yields nothing definite as to the number of the books recovered, it is obvious that the books collected were the most precious documents which the nation possessed. They were doubtless religious, as was the age.

7. Philo (Circa 20 bc-50 ad)

Philo is our next witness. He flourished in Alexandria between circa 20 bc and 50 ad, leaving behind him a voluminous literature. Unfortunately, he does not yield us much of positive value for our present purpose. His evidence is largely negative. True, he nowhere mentions the tripartite division of the Old Testament, which is known to have existed in his day. Nor does he quote from Ezekiel, the Five Megilloth (Canticles, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther), Daniel, Chronicles, or from the Twelve Minor Prophets, except Hosea, Jonah, and Zechariah. Moreover he held a loose view of inspiration. According to Philo, inspiration was by no means confined to the sacred Scriptures; all truly wise and virtuous men are inspired and capable of expressing the hidden things of God. But as Dr. Green ( Canon , 130) right fully contends, "Philo's loose views of inspiration cannot be declared irreconcilable with the acceptance of a fixed canon, unless it is first shown that he places others whom he thinks inspired on a level with the writers of Scripture. This he never does." Philo's reverence for the "Law" was unbounded. In this respect he is the type of other Alexandrians. He quotes predominatingly from the Law. Moses was to him the source of all wisdom, even the wisdom of the Gentiles. Concerning the laws of Moses, he is reported by Eusebius as saying: "They have not changed so much as a single word in them. They would rather die a thousand deaths than detract anything from these laws and statutes." On the other hand, Philo never quotes any of the Apocryphal books. Hence, it may safely be assumed that his canon was essentially ours.

8. The New Testament as a Witness (Circa 50-100 ad)

The evidence furnished by the New Testament is of the highest importance. When summed up, it gives the unmistakable impression that when the New Testament was written (circa 50-100 ad) there was a definite and fixed canon of Old Testament Scripture, to which authoritative appeal could be made. And first, too much importance can scarcely be attached to the names or titles ascribed to the Old Testament writings by the authors of the New Testament: Thus, "the scripture" (John 10:35; John 19:36; 2 Peter 1:20 ), "the scripture s" (Matthew 22:29; Acts 18:24 ), "holy scriptures" (Romans 1:2 ), "sacred writings" (2 Timothy 3:15 ), "the law" (John 10:34; John 12:34; John 15:25; 1 Corinthians 14:21 ), "law and prophets" (Matthew 5:17; Matthew 7:12; Matthew 22:40; Luke 16:16; Luke 24:44; Acts 13:15; Acts 28:23 ). Such names or titles, though they do not define the limits of the canon, certainly assume the existence of a complete and sacred collection of Jewish writings which are already marked off from all other literature as separate and fixed. One passage (John 10:35 ) in which the term "scripture," is employed seems to refer to the Old Testament canon as a whole; "and the scripture cannot be broken." In like manner the expression "law and prophets" is often used in a generic sense, referring to much more than merely the 1st and 2nd divisions of the Old Testament; it seems rather to refer to the old dispensation as a whole; but the term "the law" is the most general of all. It is frequently applied to the entire Old Testament, and apparently held in Christ's time among the Jews a place akin to that which the term "the Bible" does with us. For example, in John 10:34; John 11:34; John 15:25 , texts from the prophets or even from the Ps are quoted as part of "the Law"; in 1 Corinthians 14:21 also, Paul speaks of Isaiah 28:11 as a part of "the law." These names and titles, accordingly, are exceedingly important; they are never applied by New Testament writers to the Apocrypha.

One passage (Luke 24:44 ) furnishes clear evidence of the threefold division of the canon. But here again, as in the Prologue of Sirach, there is great uncertainty as to the limits of the 3rd division. Instead of saying "the law, the prophets and the writings," Luke says, "the law, the prophets and the psalms." But it is obvious enough why the Psalms should have been adduced by Jesus in support of His resurrection. It is because they especially testify of Christ: they were, therefore, the most important part of the 3rd division for His immediate purpose, and it may be that they are meant to stand a potiori for the whole of the 3rd division (compare Budde, Encyclopedia Biblica , col. 669).

Another passage (Matthew 23:35; compare Luke 11:51 ) seems to point to the final order and arrangement of the books in the Old Testament canon. It reads: "That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of Abel the righteous unto the blood of Zachariah son of Barachiah, whom ye slew between the sanctuary and the altar." Now, in order to grasp the bearing of this verse upon the matter in hand, it must be remembered that in the modern arrangement of the Old Testament books in Hebrew, Chronicles stands last; and that the murder of Zachariah is the last recorded instance in this arrangement, being found in 2 Chronicles 24:20 , 2 Chronicles 24:21 . But this murder took place under Joash king of Judah, in the 9th century bc. There is another which is chronologically later, namely, that of Uriah son of Shemaiah who was murdered in Jehoiakim's reign in the 7th century bc (Jeremiah 26:23 ). Accordingly, the argument is this, unless Ch already stood last in Christ's Old Testament, why did He not say, "from the blood of Abel unto the blood of Uriah"? He would then have been speaking chronologically and would have included all the martyrs whose martyrdom is recorded in the Old Testament. But He rather says, "from the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zachariah," as though He were including the whole range of Old Testament Scripture, just as we would say "from Genesis to Malachi." Hence, it is inferred, with some degree of justification also, that Chronicles stood in Christ's time, as it does today in the Hebrew Bible of the Massorets, the last book of an already closed canon. Of course, in answer to this, there is the possible objection that in those early days the Scriptures were still written by the Jews on separate rolls.

Another ground for thinking that the Old Testament canon was closed before the New Testament was written is the numerous citations made in the New Testament from the Old Testament. Every book is quoted except Esther, Ecclesiastes, Canticles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Obadiah, Nahum, and Zephaniah. But these exceptions are not serious. The Twelve Minor Prophets were always treated by the Jews en bloc as one canonical work; hence, if one of the twelve were quoted all were recognized. And the fact that 2 Chronicles 24:20 , 2 Chronicles 24:21 is quoted in Matthew 23:35 and Luke 11:51 presupposes also the canonicity of Ezra-Nehemiah, as originally these books were one with Chronicles, though they may possibly have already been divided in Jesus' day. As for Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Canticles, it is easy to see why they are not quoted: they probably failed to furnish New Testament writers material for quotation. The New Testament writers simply had no occasion to make citations from them. What is much more noteworthy, they never quote from the Apocryphal books, though they show an acquaintance with them. Professor Gigot, one of the greatest of Roman Catholic authorities, frankly admits this. In his General Introduction to the Study of the Scriptures , 43, he says: "They never quote them explicitly, it is true, but time and again they borrow expressions and ideas from them." As a matter of fact, New Testament writers felt free to quote from any source; for example, Paul on Mars' Hill cites to the learned Athenians an astronomical work of the Stoic Aratus of Cilicia, or perhaps from a Hymn to Jupiter by Cleanthes of Lycia, when he says, "For we are also his off-spring" (Acts 17:28 ). And Judges 1:14 , Judges 1:15 almost undeniably quotes from Enoch ( Judges 1:9; 60:8) - a work which is not recognized as canonical by any except the church of Abyssinia. But in any case, the mere quoting of a book does not canonize it; nor, on the other hand, does failure to quote a book exclude it. Quotation does not necessarily imply sanction; no more than reference to contemporary literature is incompatible with strict views of the canon. Everything depends upon the manner in which the quotation is made. In no case is an Apocryphal book cited by New Testament authors as "Scripture," or as the work of the Holy Spirit. And the force of this statement is not weakened by the fact that the authors of New Testament writings cited the Septuagint instead of the original Hebrew; for, "they are responsible only for the inherent truthfulness of each passage in the form which they actually adopt" (Green, Canon , 145). As a witness, therefore, the New Testament is of paramount importance. For, though it nowhere tells us the exact number of books contained in the Old Testament canon, it gives abundant evidence of the existence already in the 1st century ad of a definite and fixed canon.

9. 4 Esdras (Circa 81-96 ad)

4 Esdras in Latin (2 Esdras in English) is a Jewish apocalypse which was written originally in Greek toward the close of the 1st century (circa 81-96 ad). The passage of special interest to us is 2 Esdras 14:19-48 which relates in most fabulous style how Ezra is given spiritual illumination to reproduce the Law which had been burned, and how, at the Divine command, he secludes himself for a period of 40 days, after which he betakes himself with five skilled scribes to the open country. There, a cup of water is offered him; he drinks, and then dictates to his five amanuenses continuously for 40 days and nights, producing 94 books of which 70 are kept secret and 24 published. The section of supreme importance reads as follows: "And it came to pass, when the forty days were fulfilled, that the Most High spake, saying, 'The first that thou hast written, publish openly, that the worthy may read it; but keep the seventy last, that thou mayest deliver them only to such as be wise among the people; for in them is the spring of understanding, the fountain of wisdom, and the stream of knowledge.' And I did so" (4 Esdras 14:45-48). The story is obviously pure fiction. No wonder that a new version of it arose in the 16th century, according to which the canon was completed, not by Ezra alone, but by a company of men known as the Great Synagogue. From the legend of 4 Esdras it is commonly inferred that the 24 books which remain after subtracting 70 from 94 are the canonical books of the Old Testament. If so, then this legend is the first witness we have to the number of books contained in the Old Testament canon. This number corresponds exactly with the usual number of sacred books according to Jewish count, as we saw in section 5 above. The legend, accordingly, is not without value. Even as legend it witnesses to a tradition which existed as early as the 1st Christian century, to the effect that the Jews possessed 24 specially sacred books. It also points to Ezra as the chief factor in the making of Scripture and intimates that the Old Testament canon has long since been virtually closed.

10. Josephus' "Contra Apionem" (Circa 100 ad)

Flavius Josephus, the celebrated Jewish historian, was born 37 ad. He was a priest and a Pharisee. About 100 ad, he wrote a controversial treatise, known as Contra Apionem , in defense of the Jews against their assailants, of whom Apion is taken as a leading representative, Now Apion was a famous grammarian, who in his life had been hostile to the Jews. He had died some 50 years before Contra Apionem was written. Josephus wrote in Greek to Greeks. The important passage in his treatise (I, 8) reads as follows: "For it is not the case with us to have vast numbers of books disagreeing and conflicting with one another. We have but twenty-two, containing the history of all time, books that are justly believed in. And of these, five are the books of Moses, which comprise the laws and the earliest traditions from the creation of mankind down to the time of his (Moses') death. This period falls short but by a little of three thousand years. From the death of Moses to the reign of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, the successor of Xerxes, the prophets who succeeded Moses wrote the history of the events that occurred in their own time; in thirteen books. The remaining four documents comprise hymns to God and practical precepts to men. From the days of Artaxerxes to our own time every event has indeed been recorded. But these recent records have not been deemed worthy of equal credit with those which preceded them, because the exact succession of the prophets ceased. But what faith we have placed in our own writings is evident by our conduct; for though so great an interval of time (i.e. since they were written) has now passed, not a soul has ventured either to add, or to remove, or to alter a syllable. But it is instinctive in all Jews at once from their very birth to regard them as commands of God, and to abide by them, and, if need be, willingly to die for them."

The value of this remarkable passage for our study is obviously very great. In the first place Josephus fixes the number of Jewish writings which are recognized as sacred at 22, joining probably Ruth to Jdg and Lam to Jer. He also classifies them according to a threefold division, which is quite peculiar to himself: 5 of Moses, 13 of the prophets, and 4 hymns and maxims for human life. The 5 of Moses were of course the Pentateuch; the 13 of the prophets probably included the 8 regular Nebhı̄'ı̄m plus Daniel, Job, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Esther; the "4 hymns and maxims" would most naturally consist of Psalms, Proverbs, Canticles and Ecclesiastes. There is little doubt that his 22 books are those of our present Hebrew canon.

Another very remarkable fact about Josephus' statement is the standard he gives of canonicity, namely, antiquity; because, as he says, since Artaxerxes' age the succession of prophets had ceased. It was the uniform tradition of Josephus' time that prophetic inspiration had ceased with Malachi (circa 445-432 bc). Hence, according to him, the canon was closed in the reign of Artaxerxes (465-425 bc). He does not pause to give any account of the closing of the canon; he simply assumes it, treating it as unnecessary. Prophecy had ceased, and the canon was accordingly closed; the fact did not require to be officially proclaimed. As remarked above. the value of Josephus as a witness is very great. But just here an important question arises: How literally must we interpret his language? Was the Old Testament canon actually closed before 425 bc? Were not there books and parts of books composed and added to the canon subsequent to his reign? Dr. Green seems to take Josephus literally (Canon , 40, 78). But Josephus is not always reliable in his chronology. For example, in his Antiquities (XI, vi, 13) he dates the story of Esther as occurring in the reign of Artaxerxes I (whereas it belongs to Xerxes' reign), while in the same work (XI, v, 1) he puts Ezra and Nehemiah under Xerxes (whereas they belong to the time of Artaxerxes). On the whole, it seems safer on internal grounds to regard Josephus' statements concerning the antiquity of the Jewish canon as the language not of a careful historian, but of a partisan in debate. Instead of expressing absolute fact in this case, he was reflecting the popular belief of his age. Reduced to its lowest terms, the element of real truth in what he says was simply this, that he voiced a tradition which was at that time universal and undisputed; one, however, which had required a long period, perhaps hundreds of years, to develop. Hence, we conclude that the complete Old Testament canon, numbering 22 books, was no new thing 100 ad.

11. The Councils of Jamnia (90 and 118 ad)

According to the traditions preserved in the Mishna, two councils of Jewish rabbis were held (90 and 118 ad respectively) at Jabne, or Jamnia, not far South of Joppa, on the Mediterranean coast, at which the books of the Old Testament, notably Ecclesiastes and Canticles, were discussed and their canonicity ratified. Rabbi Gamaliel II probably presided. Rabbi Akiba was the chief spirit of the council. What was actually determined by these synods has not been preserved to us accurately, but by many authorities it is thought that the great controversy which had been going on for over a century between the rival Jewish schools of Hillel and Shammai was now brought to a close, and that the canon was formally restricted to our 39 books. Perhaps it is within reason to say that at Jamnia the limits of the Hebrew canon were officially and finally determined by Jewish authority. Not that official sanction created public opinion, however, but rather confirmed it.

12. The Talmud (200-500 ad)

The Talmud consists of two parts: (1) The Mishna (compiled circa 200 ad), a collection of systematized tradition; and (2) The Gemara, Gemārā (completed about 500 ad), a "vast and desultory commentary on the Mishna" A B araitha', or unauthorized gloss, known as the Bābhā' Bathrā' 14b , a Talmudic tractate, relates the "order" of the various books of the Old Testament and who "wrote" or edited them. But it says nothing of the formation of the canon. To write is not the same as to canonize; though to the later Jews the two ideas were closely akin. As a witness, therefore, this tractate is of little value, except that it confirms the tripartite division and is a good specimen of rabbinic speculation. For the full text of the passage, see Ryle, Canon of the Old Testament , 273ff.

13. Jewish Doubts in the 2nd Century Ad

During the 2nd century ad, doubts arose in Jewish minds concerning four books, Proverbs, Canticles, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. In a certain Talmudic tractate it is related that an attempt was made to withdraw ( gānaz , "conceal," "hide") the Book of Prov on account of contradictions which were found in it (compare Proverbs 26:4 , Proverbs 26:5 ), but on deeper investigation it was not withdrawn. In another section of the Talmud, Rabbi Akiba is represented as saying concerning Canticles: "God forbid that any man of Israel should deny that the Song of Songs defileth the hands, for the whole world is not equal to the day in which the Song of Songs was given to Israel. For all Scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holiest of the holy." Such extravagant language inclines one to feel that real doubt must have existed in the minds of some concerning the book. But the protestations were much stronger against Ecclesiates. In one tractate it is stated: "The wise men desired to hide it because its language was often self-contradictory (compare Ecclesiastes 7:3 and Ecclesiastes 2:2; Ecclesiastes 4:2 and Ecclesiastes 9:4 ), but they did not hide it because the beginning and the end of it consist of words from the Torah (compare Ecclesiastes 1:3; Ecclesiastes 12:13 , Ecclesiastes 12:14 )." Likewise Est was vigorously disputed by both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Gemaras, because the name of God was not found in it; but a Rabbi Simeon ben Lakkish (circa 300 ad) defended its canonicity, putting Esther on an equality with the Law and above the Prophets and the other Writings. Other books, for example, Ezekiel and Jonah, were discussed in post-Talmudic writings, but no serious objections were ever raised by the Jews against either. Jonah was really never doubted till the 12th century ad. In the case of no one of these disputed books were there serious doubts; nor did scholastic controversies affect public opinion.

14. Summary and Conclusion

This brings us to the end of our examination of the witnesses. In our survey we have discovered (1) that the Old Testament says nothing about its canonization, but does emphasize the manner in which the Law was preserved and recognized as authoritative; (2) that to conclude that the Jews possessed the Law only, when the renegade Manasseh was expelled by Nehemiah from Jerusalem, because the Samaritans admit of the Law alone as the true canon, is unwarrantable; (3) that the Septuagint version as we know it from the Christian manuscripts extant is by no means a sufficient proof that the Alexandrians possessed a "larger" canon which included the Apocrpha; (4) that Jesus ben Sirach is a witness to the fact that the Prophets in his day (180 bc) were not yet acknowledged as canonical; (5) that his grandson in his Prologue is the first witness to the customary tripartite division of Old Testament writings, but does not speak of the 3rd division as though it were already closed; (6) that the Books of Maccabees seem to indicate that Psalms and Daniel are already included in the canon of the Jews; (7) that Philo's testimony is negative, in that he witnesses against the Apocryphal books as an integral part of Holy Scripture; (8) that the New Testament is the most explicit witness of the series, because of the names and titles it ascribes to the Old Testament books which it quotes; (9) that 4 Esdras is the first witness to the number of books in the Old Testament canon - 24; (10) that Josephus also fixes the number of books, but in arguing for the antiquity of the canon speaks as an advocate, voicing popular tradition, rather than as a scientific historian; (11) that the Councils of Jamnia may, with some ground, be considered the official occasion on which the Jews pronounced upon the limits of their canon; but that (12) doubts existed in the 2nd century concerning certain books; which books, however, were not seriously questioned.

From all this we conclude, that the Law was canonized, or as we would better say, was recognized as authoritative, first, circa 444 bc; that the Prophets were set on an even footing with the Law considerably later, circa 200 bc; and that the Writings received authoritative sanction still later, circa 100 bc. There probably never were three separate canons, but there were three separate classes of writings, which between 450 and 100 bc doubtless stood on different bases, and only gradually became authoritative. There is, therefore, ground for thinking, as suggested above (section 6), that the tripartite division of the Old Testament canon is due to material differences in the contents as well as to chronology.

III. The Canon in the Christian Church

1. In the Eastern or Oriental Church

In making the transition from the Jewish to the Christian church, we find the same canon cherished by all. Christians of all sects have always been disposed to accept without question the canon of the Jews. For centuries all branches of the Christian church were practically agreed on the limits set by the Jews, but eventually the western church became divided, some alleging that Christ sanctioned the "larger" canon of Alexandria, including the

Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Canon of the Old Testament'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​isb/​c/canon-of-the-old-testament.html. 1915.
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