The Formation of the Old Testament Canon

Canonicity  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  1:04:54
0 ratings

Canonicity: The Formation of the Old Testament Canon Lesson # 3

Some Christians are unnerved by the fact that nowhere does God itemize the sixty-six books that are to be included in the Bible.
Many believers have at best a vague notion of how the church arrived at what we call the canon of Scripture.
Even after becoming more aware, some believers are uncomfortable with the process by which the New Testament canon was determined.
For many, it appears to have been a haphazard process that took far too long.
Furthermore, whether talking with a Jehovah’s Witness, a liberal theologian, or a New Ager, Christians are very likely to run into questions concerning the extent, adequacy, and accuracy of the Bible as God’s revealed Word.
Just how did Israel decide which books were inspired and how did the church decide on the books for inclusion in the New Testament?
So the complete process by which these books in both the Old and New Testament came to be generally recognized as exclusively authoritative is not known.
It is commonly accepted by Christians that this process transpired under the influence and direction of the Holy Spirit.
J. Hampton Keathley III commenting on the logical necessity for a canon of Scripture and its preservation has the following excellent comment, he writes “That God would provide and preserve a Canon of Scripture without addition or deletion is not only necessary, but it is logically credible. If we believe that God exists as an almighty God, then revelation and inspiration are clearly possible. If we believe in such a God, it is also probable that He would, out of love and for His own purposes and designs, reveal Himself to men. Because of man’s obvious condition in sin and his obvious inability to meet his spiritual needs (regardless of all his learning and technological advances), special revelation revealed in a God-breathed book is not only possible, logical, and probable, but a necessity. The evidence shows that the Bible is unique and that God is its author. The evidence declares that “all Scripture is God breathed and profitable …” (2 Tim. 3:16) and that “no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pet. 1:20-21). In view of this, the logical question is: “Would it not be unreasonable for God to fail to providentially care for these inspired documents to preserve them from destruction and so guide in their collection and arrangement that they would all be present with none missing and none added that were not inspired?”[1][2]
Ryrie lists several important considerations when approaching the subject of canonicity, he writes “1. Self-authentication. It is essential to remember that the Bible is self-authenticating since its books were breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16). In other words, the books were canonical the moment they were written. It was not necessary to wait until various councils could examine the books to determine if they were acceptable or not. Their canonicity was inherent within them, since they came from God. People and councils only recognized and acknowledged what is true because of the intrinsic inspiration of the books as they were written. No Bible book became canonical by action of some church council. 2. Decisions of men. Nevertheless, men and councils did have to consider which books should be recognized as part of the canon, for there were some candidates that were not inspired. Some decisions and choices had to be made, and God guided groups of people to make correct choices (not without guidelines) and to collect the various writings into the canons of the Old and New Testaments. 3. Debates over canonicity. In the process of deciding and collecting, it would not be unexpected that some disputes would arise about some of the books. And such was the case. However, these debates in no way weaken the authenticity of the truly canonical books, nor do they give status to those which were not inspired by God. 4. Completion of canon. Since A.D. 397 the Christian church has considered the canon of the Bible to be complete; if it is complete, then it must be closed. Therefore, we cannot expect any more books to be discovered or written that would open the canon again and add to its sixty-six books. Even if a letter of Paul were discovered, it would not be canonical. After all, Paul must have written many letters during his lifetime in addition to the ones that are in the New Testament; yet the church did not include them in the canon. Not everything an apostle wrote was inspired, for it was not the writer who was inspired but his writings, and not necessarily all of them. The more recent books of the cults which are placed alongside the Bible are not inspired and have no claim to be part of the canon of Scripture. Certainly so-called prophetic utterances or visions that some claim to be from God today cannot be inspired and considered as part of God’s revelation or as having any kind of authority like that of the canonical books.”[3]
It is important to remember that it took more than a thousand years to write the Old Testament canon with the oldest parts being written by Moses and the latest after the Babylonian exile.
This means that during the entire period of biblical history the Jewish people lived without a closed canon of Scripture.
Thus, we can see that God did not consider a closed canon essential to worshipping Him.
The books which now compose the Old Testament were of course collected into a canon as an act of God’s providence.
However, historically it was prompted by the emergence of apocryphal and pseudepigraphical literature in the intertestamental period and the increasing need to know what the limits of divine revelation were.
By the time of Jesus and His apostles, the Old Testament which is called Tanaach by modern Judaism was composed of the Law, Prophets and Writings (Luke 24:44).
Opinions about the full extent of the canon seem not to have been finalized until sometime after the first century A.D.
So the problem of how we came by thirty-nine books known as the Old Testament is a historical investigation which involves their history and not their origin or contents.
It involves determining who made them into a collection and not who wrote them.
The canon of Scripture was, of course, being formed as each book was written, and it was complete when the last book was finished.
When we speak of the “formation” of the canon we actually mean the recognition of the canonical books.
This took time.
Some assert that all the books of the Old Testament canon were collected and recognized by Ezra in the fifth century b.c. References by Josephus (a.d. 95) and in 2 Esdras 14 (a.d. 100) indicate the extent of the Old Testament canon as the thirty-nine books we know today.
The discussions by the teaching-house at Jamnia (a.d. 70–100) seemed to assume this existing canon.
Jesus delimited the extent of the canonical books of the Old Testament when He accused the scribes of being guilty of slaying all the prophets God had sent Israel from Abel to Zacharias (Lk 11:51).
The account of Abel’s death is, of course, in Genesis; that of Zacharias is in 2 Chronicles 24:20–21, which is the last book in the order of the books in the Hebrew Bible (not Malachi as in our English Bibles).
Therefore, it is as if the Lord had said, “Your guilt is recorded all through the Bible—from Genesis to Malachi.”
Notice that He did not include any of the apocryphal books which were in existence at that time and which contained the accounts of other martyrs.
Now, it is important to remember that certain books were canonical even before any tests were put to them.
No church nor church council made any book of the Old or New Testament canonical or authentic.
The book was either authentic or it was not when it was written.
Ancient Israel and the church or its councils recognized and verified certain books as the Word of God, and in time those so recognized were collected together in what we now call the Bible.
What tests did the church apply?
We’ll answer this question in our next lesson.
[1] For an excellent treatment of these evidences, see Josh McDowell’s book, Evidence Demands a Verdict, Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith, Revised Edition, Here’s Life Publishers, Inc. San Bernardino, CA, 1979.
[2] Bibliology, The Doctrine of the Written Word, Biblical Studies Press, 1997;, pages 26-27.
[3] Ryrie, electronic media. For other articles on canonicity, see our web page at under “Theology,” and then under “Bibliology--The Doctrine of the Written Word.” cited by J. Hampton Keathley, Bibliology, page 27.
Related Media
See more
Related Sermons
See more