The Formation Of The Canon: The Old Testament

The Hebrew Scriptures were recognized as authoritative at their inception, and were immediately accepted as such by the Jewish people. The acceptance of the Pentateuch, for example, is recorded in Deuteronomy 32:46-47, and in Joshua 1:7,8.

As a matter of course, the Church of the first century regarded the Hebrew Scriptures as inspired. Jesus, in Luke 24:44, refers to the Law, the prophets, and the psalms (or the writings) as divinely authoritative and canonical.

The Jews accepted all of the 39 books of the Old Testament as inspired. A confirmation of public opinion along these lines was made at the synod at Jamnia. When the destruction of Jerusalem was imminent in A.D. 70, Yochanan ben Zakkai, a great Rabbi in the school of Hillel in the Pharisaic party, obtained permission from the Romans to reconvene the Sanhedrin on a purely spiritual basis at Jabneh or Jamnia. Objections had been raised by some of the Jews to the canonical recognition of a few books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Esther), and their canonicity was reaffirmed at this time. All of the books that they decided to acknowledge as canonical were already generally accepted, although questions had been raised about some of them. On the other hand, those that they refused to admit, such as Ecclesiasticus, had never been included.1

Philo (20 B.C. - A.D. 50), the learned Jew in Alexandria, accepted the Hebrew canon. For him, the Law (the five books of Moses, or the first five books of the Bible) was pre-eminently inspired, but he also acknowledged the authority of the other books of the Hebrew canon. He did not regard the apocryphal books as authoritative. This suggests that, although the apocryphal books were included in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures), they were not really considered canonical by the Alexandrian Jews.

Josephus, the eminent Jewish historian who lived in the first century A.D., also echoes prevailing opinion about which books were canonical and which ones were not. Although he used the Septuagint freely, he, also, did not regard the Apocrypha as canonical.

The earliest extant Christian list of Old Testament books was recorded by Melito, bishop of Sardis in A.D. 170. This list does not mention Lamentations (which was usually understood to be part of the book of Jeremiah), or Nehemiah, which was normally appended to Ezra. The only other omission was the book of Esther.

The late fourth century writer Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, quoted another ancient list from the second century which included all the books corresponding to our thirty-nine, except Lamentations, which was probably considered an appendix to Jeremiah.

Origen (A.D. 185-254) also provided a list of the Old Testament books in use corresponding to what we now accept as the Old Testament.2 Jerome (A.D. 347-420) began translating the Bible into the Latin Vulgate in A.D. 382. The Old Testament portion of this version of the Bible was completed in A.D. 405, and also contained the 39 books we recognize as the Old Testament. He did not hold the Old Testament apocryphal books in high estimation, but he later translated a few of them, although reluctantly.3

For Christians, the canonical authority of the Old Testament is established beyond doubt by the fact that the Hebrew Canon of the Old Testament was accepted as divinely authoritative by Jesus Christ and by His disciples.4

1 F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, third ed. (Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1963), pp. 97-98.

2 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book VI, Chapter 25.

3 Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1968), p. 338.

4 Edward J. Young, "The Canon of the Old Testament," in Carl F. H. Henry, ed., Revelation and the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1958), p. 168.

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