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In discussing the whole area of the subject of the OT canon it is necessary first of all to discuss the term 'canon' and what is meant by that term. The word 'canon' (Gk: kanon) is a noun, in classical Greek its meaning is 'straight rod' or 'ruler'. Soggin suggests that the word has Semitic origins and "probably derives from the Akkadian ganu, Hebrew ganeti, which means 'measuring rod'."[1]

There has been much debate surrounding the canon, how we use the term, and what we are trying to convey by it. B.S. Childs points out that "it should be incontrovertible that there was a genuine historical development involved in the formation of the canon",[2] and that any definition or concept of canon that does not recognise this development is faulty. However, Childs goes on to say that there is only a limited amount of evidence available for the historical development of the canon, which only allows for a rough sketch of the development. This leaves many of the critical questions unanswered and leaves Childs with a dilemma as

the role of the canon is of fundamental importance in understanding the Hebrew Scriptures. Yet the Jewish canon was formed through a complex historical process which is largely inaccessible to critical reconstruction.[3]

Bearing this in mind I want to look at the canon of the OT, witnesses to canonicity, and the facts and theories for and against the structure of the canon.

Firstly, I want to note that "the use of the term canon to describe the Scriptures was of Christian origin and not applied in classic Jewish literature".[4] It would appear that the Rabbis spoke of the 'sacred writings' when talking about the Scriptures, but having said this, it would seem that the general thought or idea being conveyed is similar. Childs goes on to say "the rabbinic concept has enough in common with the Christian usage for Jews usually not to hesitate to apply the term canon to their Scriptures".[5]

Regarding the criteria by which a term was judged as whether or not it was a canonical book. Soggin points out that "We have two traditions about the formation of the palestinian canon and the criteria according to which the books were included in it".[6] He uses two sources dating from the first century CE: one is a report by Josephus and the other an apocryphal passage from IV Ezra. Josephus in Contra Apion 1.8 gives three criteria which a book had to have to qualify before being accepted as canonical. There are: (i) Composition had to have been between Moses and Ezra; (ii) it had to have a sacred quality which set it apart from other non-canonical books; (iii) it had to be part of the 22 listed books.

The apocryphal writing tells how Ezra dictated all the writings which had been lost in the destruction of Jerusalem. Soggin writes that the traditions "do not seem to have any historical foundation".[7] Even if the documents had historical value they still offer little regarding the criteria for canonicity, but they both mention the work of Ezra as an important time for the canon. However, I want to move on now, having discussed the terminology and criteria of canon, to the witnesses to and theories surrounding the development of the canon.

I want to start by looking at the witness of the OT canon to itself. The Hebrew OT witnesses to the persecution of parts of the OT (cf. Exod. 40:20; Deut. 31:9, 24-26; 1 Kings 8:9; Prov. 25:1), but as Robinson points out "persecution is not synonymous with canonisation".[8] The main passage concerning the canonicity is that of 2 Kings 22:8ff. that describes the finding of the 'book of the law' and how Josiah instituted a religious reformation and compelled the people to obey its laws and instructions. The King and his assistants recognised that it was ancient and that it contained the words of Yahweh (2 Kings 22:13, 18f.). It would seem that scholarship is almost unanimous in agreeing that the book found by Josiah was Deuteronomy (or at least part of it). Harrison & Robinson observe that even though the authority of the Book found was not questioned "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'".[9] Historically the sense of the beginnings of the canon are found in Exod.24:7, where Moses takes the 'Book of the Covenant'. Another passage that has to be mentioned at this point is Nehemiah 8:8f. in which Ezra "read from the book, from the book of God, clearly". Ezra did not simply read the Law, but he accompanied it with an interpretation. This would seem to indicate that in Ezra's time (which would be about 444 BCE) the law was regarded as Scripture. Commenting on these passages G.C. Alders points out that "there are three great occasions in Israel's history when we see certain writings being recognised as having divine authority and being accepted as a written rule for the nation".[10] Beckwith suggests that each "reference is to some part of the Pentateuch".[11]

These three passages contain practically all that the OT says about itself, with the exception of a few passages, such as Zech.7:12 and Dan.9:2 which "show the deep regard that the latter prophets had for the writings of the predecessors".[12] Harrison & Robinson go on to say that Zech. 7:12 is the "locus classicus in the OT, teaching the inspiration of the prophets; it is the OT parallel to 2 Tim. 3:16".[13]

Having looked at the Biblical witness to the canon, which is very sparse, I now want to move on and take a look at some of the ideas and theories on how the canon (the collection of books that form a standard for the faith and practice of God's people, which we now call the OT) came into being and was accepted in the form that we are now accustomed with.

Lernard distinguishes four main views of Christianity favoured by the different OT scholars this century. These are: (i) The theory of canon as inspired word; (ii) The theory of canon as history; (iii) the theory of canon as law; (iv) the theory of canon as a cultic phenomenon.[14] It was questionable whether all the views outlined above are mutually exclusive. Upon closer inspection it would appear that both the second and third views rely on the first view. The public reading of Scripture in worship would probably have been more of a result and not the cause of the recognition of a book's canonicity.

I want to begin by taking a look at the traditional view. This view was generally upheld and was accepted by most of the scholars until the Seventeenth century. Although, as we have seen, the OT does not directly speak of when and how canonisation took place there are various Jewish traditions, that both Jews and Christians accepted, that were developed during the Hellenistic period. 2 Esdras (4 Ezra) 14:14 dated about 100 CE speaks of how Ezra, supernaturally empowered to recall the Scriptures, writing out the books in forty days. 2 Macc.2:13 says that Nehemiah was responsible for the collection of the sacred books. In the Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra 14b-15a, there is a passage that speaks about authors of the various books of the Bible. In Mediaeval times Elias Levita (1468-1549) developed the theory of the use of the Great Synagogue, who under the rule of Ezra, established the canon of the Hebrew Bible and divided it into three parts. "This theory was widely accepted by Jews and Christians until the end of the nineteenth century".[15] Although there are variations within these traditional viewpoints they all assume that there was a continuity between the writing and collection of the authoritative books. It holds that the canon was formed and as each book was added the canon grew larger until the last book was added, when the canon was closed. This traditional view seems has come under attack from several angles. Firstly, the whole area of debate surrounding the historical development of Biblical literature has seriously damaged the idea of an unbroken link between the writing of a book and its inception. One of the most serious attacks affecting this line of thought is that regarding the development of the Law, or Pentateuch. The acceptance of the Documentary Hypothesis as an explanation for the rise of the first five books, with its four main sources (J, E, P & D) rejects the traditional view on the formation of the canon. Recognition of a long pre-history of transmission has also caused scholars problems in accepting traditional authorship. Some scholars have also cast doubt on the dating of certain books, especially Daniel, placing them after the time of Ezra's closing of the canon. Childs writes: "Kueren's devastating negative judgement regarding the history of the Great Synagogue removed the last foundation block of the older view and wiped the slate clear for a new interpretation".[16]

Eichorn, Corrodi and de Watte approached the development of the canon from a purely historical perspective. It seems that there were a great variety of views that never a wide following because there were a range of opinions concerning the literature itself. "However with the growing hegemony of Wellhausen's reconstruction of Israel's history and literature, a new consensus began to emerge also regarding the history of the canon".[17] The new consensus was held by those such as Cornill, Smith, Pfeiffer and Eissfeld. Their theories seemed to agree in four major areas. Briefly these were:

(i) Josiah's reform of 621 BCE marked the first step in the canonicity of Deuteronomy, or part of it.

(ii) The Torah had established its fixed position in the canon by the time of Ezra in the fifth century, with the formation of the Pentateuch finished to some extent by the Samaritan schism.

(iii) The Prophetic books were canonised in the third century and closed before Daniel was written.

(iv) The final canonisation was decided at the Council of Jamnia (c.90 CE).

There are several problems with this point of view: these being with the fixed views of historical events on which this theory seems to have been built. As already discussed, the Josianic reform does not infer that this was the first stage in canonicity. Childs points out that recent research has given rise to doubts whether one can talk of the Samaritan schism as a single event. "Nor can the restriction of the Samaritan Scriptures of the Pentateuch be used as a terminus ad quem for the closing of the first part of the Hebrew canon".[18] It is also doubtful whether or not it can be concluded that one section of the canon was firmly closed before another was formed, as there is a lack of evidence. There is also doubt - due to a lack of evidence - as to whether or not it can be concluded that one section of the canon was firmly closed before another was formed, as well as to whether the tripartite division of the canon reflects three historical stages in its development. A further area of dispute is the Council of Jamnia, of this Childs writes: "The argument for the dating of the closing of the final section of the Hebrew Bible by the council of Jamnia rests on the flimsiest possible evidence".[19] Archer goes a step further arguing that there is "very little support for the supposition that there was ever an official synodial meeting at Jamnia, or Jabneh, either in 90 CE or at any other time".[20] Harrison writes:

As far as the facts of the situation are concerned, very little is known about the supposed Synod of Jamnia. After Jerusalem was destroyed... in 70 A.D. Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai obtained permission from the Romans to settle in Jamnia. The location soon became an established centre of Scriptural study, and from time to time certain discussions took place relating to the canonicity of certain Old Testament books... it seems probable that nothing of a formal or binding nature was decided in these discussions.[21]

Beckwith adds that assumptions that the canon was closed at Jamnia have been elaborated by many writers, but "If, however, the canon was not closed about 90 A.D., but a long time before, all these corollaries lose the premise on which they depend".[22] Beckwith goes on to say that we need to forget the idea that the canonicity of the Hebrew Bible was decided at councils; instead the session at Jamnia was not a council. He says that any idea that the canon was decided by a council needs to be forgotten. The only parallel is with the ecclesiastical councils: the decisions at these being authoritative. The earliest important Christian council to deal with the canon was 397 CE - the 3rd Council of Carthage. "The role of councils, therefore was not so much to decide the canon as to confirm decisions about the canon already reached in other ways".[23] Another problem for the school of classical literary criticism was the recovery of a sense of oral tradition which demolished the critical reconstruction of the canon which identified the material of a given book by the period in which it was thought to have been written.

After the downfall of the classic critical reconstruction of the OT canon there has been much written on the subject of the canon. G. Kölscher argued for the distinction to be made between the growth of the Hebrew writings and the development of the concept of canon. O. Freedman went to the opposite extreme, working on the assumption that if he established a date of writing, that would therefore fix the date of canonisation. He further assumed that the writing arose as a response to a historical situation and so a document could be dated very close to the last event mentioned in it. Commenting on Freedman, Childs writes: "Freedman has closed off any chance of understanding the special history of the books growth and collection as canonical Scripture which is the very issue at stake".[24] S. Leinan concludes that "the canonisation of the Covenant Code, the Decalogue, Deuteronomy, and perhaps the entire Torah is assumed to have occurred during the lifetime of Moses".[25] M. Kline goes a step further and tries to establish an unbroken canonical line from the Mosaic era by finding a parallel in the ancient Near Eastern suzerainty texts. Kline's theory of the formation of the history of the canon is one that looks at the canon in terms of divine inspiration which made certain an accurate transmission of the Word of God. J. Sanders goes to the opposite extreme and looks at the canon as an ongoing hermeneutical process that lasted through the entire history of Israel. According to Sanders "it is the nature of the Canon to be both stable and adaptable".[26] Many of Sander's ideas seemed to be based on speculation: "He assumes a knowledge of the canonical process from which he extrapolates a hermeneutic without demonstrating, in my opinion, solid evidence for reconstruction".[27] Sundberg and Swanson have pleaded for a clear distinction to be made between Scripture and canon. Scripture is defined, by them, as authoritative writings, whereas canon is defined as a decision by which the limits of Scripture are fixed. There are problems in distinguishing too sharply between Scripture and Canon by limiting the terms to the final stages of a long and complicated process, one being that it obscures some of the important stages in the canon's development. Another explanation for the formation of the OT canon is that of the redactional view of canonicity. This view argues for 'inspired redactors' who made substantial changes to the original writings of the earlier biblical writers. It says that the Biblical writings underwent continual change until they reached their final form. This prrocess took many centirues. Waltke, for example, claim that the books of the Bible have "gone through an editorial revision after coming from the mouth of an inspired spokesman".[28] Many have rejected Waltke's position on redaction criticism. Child's provides a suitable conclusion to our discussion of the various theories about the development of the OT canon: "Essential to understanding the growth of the canon is to see this interaction between a developing corpus of authoritative literature and the community which treasured it".[29]

I now want to move on and ask: "Why was the Old Testament canon formed?" Why was it necessary to have a standard by which we can see whether or not a book or document was part of the Scriptures. The answer to this question seems a fairly simple one. It would seem for the majority of the Jewish nation the Temple was the focal point for religious discussions of the day. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the fast-growing Hellenization and the Gentile proselytes to Judaism, there needed to be some guidelines by which what was - and equally what was not - Scripture. Josephus wrote (c. 90 CE):

we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contracting one another [as the Gentiles have] but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times, which are justly believed to be divine.[30]

This passage would seem to indicate that there was quite a large amount of material about at that time, but Josephus mentions that the Jewish divine books only number 22. This indicates the need for a canon so people could distinguish between Scripture and non-Scripture.

I now want to move on and take a look at the structure of the OT canon. The books of the Hebrew Bible are divided up into three sections. That of (i) the Law - Pentateuch; (ii) The Prophets; (iii) The Hagiographa - writings. This arrangement is often mentioned in the Talmud, but it goes back to an earlier period. There is evidence from long before the Christian era that the books were grouped into these three sections. Jesus ben Sira, who translated his grandfather's book, Ecclesiasticus, from Hebrew into Greek, added a prologue of his own in which he makes mention of three parts of the Jewish canon three times. "This passage can hardly have been written later than about 130 BCE".[31] He not only states that there is a threefold canon - that is closed and distinguished from all other writings - but he goes as far as to imply that this was also the case in his grandfather's time, this would give a date as early as the third century BCE for the canon. The words of Jesus also suggest a tripartite canon when he spoke in Luke 24:44 of words written in the Law, Prophets and the Psalms. There is some discussion as to whether or not 'the Psalms' refers just to the Psalms or whether it implies the whole Hagiographa: the latter seems to be the most likely. It would be surprising to think of Jesus meaning that the third section of Scripture was the Psalms alone since he regularly used the book of Daniel in the Gospels. The De Vita Contemplatina mentions the threefold structure of the Bible. Authorship of the De Vita Contemplatina has been ascribed to Philo, an older contemporary of Jesus. "Philo of Alexandria seems to have been the first to use the term, canon, to indicate the collection of books normative for faith".[32] Also Josephus, Jerome and the Talmud all speak of the three divisions in Hebrew Scripture. "It is thus a well-attested fact that, by the first century CE, the division of the canon into three groups of books was widespread in the Jewish world and that it was familiar to Jesus".[33]

The consensus is that the Law was the first part of the Hebrew Bible to be completed. Evidence for this is given by the Samaritan Pentateuch, which is the whole of the Samaritan canon. The Samaritan Pentateuch consists of the same five books as that of the Masoretic Text and the LXX., differing only in small details. The five books have a fixed succession and form a unity. A strong argument that puts the closure of the Prophets (the second section of the Hebrew canon) before the opening of the Hagiographa

is that historical and visionary works like Chronicles and Daniel, in view of their literary character, would have been included in the Prophets if they had been written, and accepted as sacred, by the time the second section of the canon was closed.[34]

2 Macc.2:14f. speaks of how Judas Maccabeaus made a classified collection of the books. Beckwith sees that Judas did not put the Hagiographa and Prophets together on a single scroll, as the scrolls of the 2nd century BCE could not contain all the material. He concludes that he must have done it by writing a list. This is then followed by the question: "Could it then be that the.. order of the Prophets and Hagiographa originated in the list drawn up by Judas Maccabeaus?".[35]

The books contained in the certain sections of the canon are as follows:

(i) The Law: Genesis; Exodus; Leviticus; Numbers & Deuteronomy.

(ii) The Prophets: Joshua; Judges; Samuel; Kings; Jeremiah; Ezekiel; Isaiah; & the Twelve prophets.

(iii) Hagiographa: Ruth; Psalms; Job; Proverbs; Ecclesiastes; Song of Songs; Lamentations; Daniel; Esther; Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles.

The above list is of 24 books, but this is the same as Josephus' 22 books, as he doubles a couple of the books up. It is also the same as the Christian 39 book canon - it is just that some books are split in two - such as the Twelve prophets, 1 & 2 Samuel, etc.

Some also write of an 'Alexandrian canon', the canon that includes the Apocrypha as having equal claims to canonicity and authority as the 24 books in the so-called Palestinian canon. The first argument in favour of the authority of the apocryphal books is that the early versions contained the 14 apocryphal books, but on closer examination it will be noted that only the LXX and the late translations derived from it contain the apocryphal books. Those who claim that the existence of the Apocrypha in the LXX is evidence for the existence of an 'Alexandrian canon' are still theorising, as it is not certain whether all the books in the LXX were treated as canonical. Indeed Philo of Alexandria never quoted from the apocrypha, although he often quoted from the Palestinian canon. It is argued that because the NT quotes the OT from the LXX, and since this version contains the Apocrypha then the apostles must have recognised the authority of the Apocrypha. This line of argument is absurd, and doesn't address the issue. "It is inconceivable that the New Testament authors could have considered the fourteen books of the Roman Catholic Apocrypha canonical and never either quoted from or alluded to any of them".[36]

Geisler & Nix give three steps to canonisation: (i) Inspiration by God; (ii) recognition by men of God, and (iii) collection and preservation by the people of God. These were the stages by which I understand the OT canon to have come into being and which was probably completed by about 300 BCE.

© 1992 Peter Reed


[1]J.A. Soggin, Introduction to the Old Testament. London: SCM, 1989, p.13.

[2] B.S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. London: SCM, 1979, p.67.

[3] Childs, p.67.

[4] Childs, p.50.

[5] Childs, p.50.

[6] Soggin, p.13.

[7] Soggin, p.14.

[8] R.K. Harrison, & G.L. Robinson, "Canon of the Old Testament," G.W. Bromiley, gen.ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised, Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979, p.593.

[9] Harrison & Robinson, p.593.

[10] Cited in R. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church. London: SPCK, 1985, p.65.

[11] Beckwith, p.65.

[12] Harrison & Robinson, p.593.

[13] Harrison & Robinson , p.593.

[14] Beckwith, p.63.

[15] Childs, p.51.

[16] Childs, p.52.

[17] Childs, p.52.

[18] Childs, p.53.

[19] Childs, p.53.

[20] G.L. Archer, Jnr. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, rev. Chicago: Moody Press, 1985, p.71.

[21] R.K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament. London: Tyndale, 1969, p. 278.

[22] Beckwith, p.276.

[23] Beckwith, p.277.

[24] Childs, p.55.

[25] Cited in Childs, p.55.

[26] Cited in Childs, p.57.

[27] Childs, p.57.

[28] N.L. Geisler, & W.E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible. Chicago: Moody, 1986, p.251.

[29] Childs, p.58.

[30] William Winston, translator The Works of Josephus. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991, p.776.

[31] Beckwith, p.110.

[32] Soggin, p.13.

[33] Beckwith, p.118.

[34] Beckwith, p.138.

[35] Beckwith, p.153.

[36] Archer, p.77.

Please note: This is a reproduction of an undergraduate term paper and so should not be cited in academic papers or coursework. Refer direct to original sources cited about.