Dr. Platypus

Home » +Apostles' Teaching » Bible » Old Testament » The Old Testament Canon: The Least You Need to Know

The Old Testament Canon: The Least You Need to Know

“Canon” comes from a Greek word meaning “reed” or “measuring stick.” It is the technical term within Christianity for the list of books agreed as being divinely inspired and authoritative in the church. Although Judaism does not use this terminology, preferring simply to speak of “the Scriptures,” Jews also wrestled in the early centuries with the question of which books counted as Scripture and which did not. In this post and the next, I’ll try to unpack some of what this wrestling means for our understanding of the Bible.

1. Whatever you call it, you’re going to offend someone.

I expect most of my readers grew up calling the books that come before the New Testament the “Old Testament,” and that’s the end of the story. It should go without saying that this terminology is unacceptable to Jews, for whom these books are not held in distinction to the writings of early Christians. For Jews, these books are simply “the Bible.” Sometimes the word Tanak(h) is used, a Hebrew acronym that stands for Torah (Law), Nebi’im (Prophets), and Ketubim (Writings), the three traditional divisions of the Jewish Bible. (See #2 and #3 below).

Scholars have taken note of the fact that terminology can get one in trouble, especially in contexts where Jews and Christians are discussing these texts together. Therefore, some new possible terms have arisen in recent years. One can speak, for example, of “the Hebrew Bible” or “the Jewish Bible,” although not without a certain lack of precision: Is an English translation of Genesis part of the Hebrew Bible? If Psalms is part of the Jewish Bible, why is that text so central to the spirituality of many Christians? Furthermore, what about books like 1 Maccabees that may rightly be regarded as part of the Christian “Old Testament” (at least for some) but haven’t been part of any Jewish Bible for 2,000 years?

Usually, whatever one calls the books from Genesis to Malachi (or from Genesis to Chronicles—see #3 below), we are still mostly stuck with “the New Testament” for the books from Matthew to Revelation. I’m not sure this doesn’t defeat whatever gains are made in interfaith dialogue by finding another term to use instead of “Old Testament,” since it seems to imply a sense of completion, improvement, or whatever, over the Bible as understood by Jews. (And “First Testament” and “Second Testament” are even worse, as far as I can see.)

Bottom line: Whatever you call these books carries some sort of theological and/or academic baggage. Refer to them as seems appropriate to you and be willing to cut people some slack if they prefer a different terminology.

2. The Jewish Bible developed in stages.

In Judaism, the Bible is divided into three main parts: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Inclusion in one of these parts gives an approximate indication of the age of the text: the Law was put to writing first, then the Prophets, and finally the Writings. These three divisions were accepted as Scripture at different times.

The Law or Torah, as the oldest portion of the Bible, was the first to be granted canonical status. In 2 Kings 22, a story is recounted of how priests involved in renovation work at the temple rediscovered the long lost “book of the law.” The year was 623 BC. This book was immediately read and interpreted to king Josiah, who instituted wide-ranging religious reforms on its basis. Many scholars believe this “book of the law” was the book of Deuteronomy (or an early form thereof) and not the complete Five Books of Moses, believed to have only assumed its final form during the Babylonian exile. At any rate, here is perhaps the first time in Israel’s history that a written text was embraced as an authoritative message from God. Some 200 years later, Ezra the priest launched a similar reform with the public reading of “the book of the law of Moses” (Neh 8). Here, at the latest, we’ve got the first portion of the Jewish Bible more or less as it stands today.

The Prophets are understood as Scripture by the second century BC. The prologue to the book of Sirach (about 117 BC) begins, “Many great teachings have been given to us through the Law and the Prophets and the others that followed them, and for these we should praise Israel for instruction and wisdom.” Although the books of the Prophets were largely accepted a Scripture by this time (Ezekiel was a latecomer, see below), they were considered of a lesser degree of authority than the Law. Among the Sadducees of Jesus’ day, only the Torah was deemed “Scripture.” The same attitude prevailed among the Samaritans.

Sirach’s “and the others” might mean “and the other books,” which would place the recognition of the Writings in this time period as well, but in fact the contents of the final portion of the Jewish Bible were not firmly established until the first century AD. In the aftermath of the Fall of Jerusalem, the leading rabbis relocated to the town of Yavneh (or Jamnia) where, among other things, they finally ironed out the contents of the Jewish Bible. Certain books were excluded immediately, such as Sirach, Tobit, and the books of the Maccabees. These were not so much rejected, however, as deemed not sufficiently authoritative to be included as Scripture. The Festival of Hanukkah is based on the historical events described in 1-2 Maccabees, for example, and there are traces of Sirach in traditional Jewish liturgy.

Other books—Ezekiel, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and Esther—were hotly contested before finally being admitted to the canon. So even though these books were all in existence during the time of Jesus, not all Jews would have accepted them as authoritative Scripture at that time.

3. Jews and Christians organize these materials differently.

We’ve already seen the broad brush strokes of how this material is arranged in the Jewish Bible: Law, Prophets, Writings. This puts the books in a somewhat different order than one sees in Bibles published by and for Christians. Furthermore, sometimes what counts as two (or more) books in the Christian Old Testament only counts as one in the Jewish Bible. Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles are each one book in the traditional Jewish Bible, likewise Ezra and Nehemiah, although in the Tanakh published by the Jewish Publication Society, they are divided up as in Christian Bibles. Traditionally, the Minor Prophets (Hosea through Malachi) count as one “Book of the Twelve” in Jewish thinking. The upshot of all this is that, although there are 39 books in the (Protestant) Old Testament, the Jewish Bible, with exactly the same contents, is understood to comprise only 24 books, and these are in a different order.

The Christian Old Testament begins with the five books of the Law, but then rather quickly begins fiddling with the traditional Jewish order. Where the Jewish Bible has “the Former Prophets” (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings), the Christian Bible inserts Ruth and 1-2 Chronicles from the Writings and calls this section “the Historical Books.” Next come “the Poetical Books,” lifting Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon from the Writings and setting them apart on their own, and then “the Major Prophets,” including Daniel and Lamentations, also lifted from the Writings. The Christian Old Testament ends with “the Minor Prophets,” what Jews know as “the Book of the Twelve.”

4. Especially among Christians, the Old Testament canon has a hard core and a sometimes elusive outer boundary.

As we have seen, before about the end of the first century, the actual contents of the Old Testament were up for grabs, even among Jews in Eretz Israel. The situation is even more complicated than that, however. Alongside the books that would eventually become the Scriptures of Judaism were other texts, some of which had been included in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. “Septuagint” comes from the Latin word for “seventy,” based on a legend that seventy Jewish scholars were responsible for producing this translation. Therefore, the Septuagint is often abbreviated LXX, Roman numeral 70.

Some of the extra books found in the LXX (like 1 Maccabees) were originally written in Hebrew; others (like 2 Maccabees) are original Greek compositions. Furthermore, the LXX version of some of the familiar books is radically different from the form in which Jews and Protestants know them. The Greek book of Jeremiah has the chapters in a different order, and the books of Daniel and Esther have lengthy “additions.” Scholars argue that at least some of these differences go back to an original (Hebrew) text from which the LXX was translated that was noticeably different from the text favored by the later rabbis.

While Jews eventually settled on the canon defined by the rabbis of Yavneh, early Christians gravitated toward the Septuagint. Many of the New Testament quotations of the Old bear witness to the Septuagintal reading. And, of course, having a ready-made Greek translation of the Bible was perfect for Christians’ missionary activities. At any rate, the LXX became the de facto Old Testament of the early church—extra books and all. But this was not without at least some concern that the Jewish Bible was different in places. Two fourth-century church fathers conceded that the extra books were in some sense secondary. Jerome, who produced a new Latin translation of the Bible, wrote the following in his prologue to Samuel and Kings after listing the books of the Jewish Old Testament:

Whatever falls outside these must be set apart among the Apocrypha. Therefore Wisdom, which is commonly entitled Solomon’s, with the book of Jesus the son of Sirach, Judith, Tobias and the ‘Shepherd’ are not in the canon. I have found the first book of Maccabees in Hebrew, the second is in Greek, as may be proved from the language itself.

And in his prologue to the books attributed to Solomon:

Therefore as the church indeed reads Judith, Tobit and the books of Maccabees, but does not receive them among the canonical books, so let it also read these two volumes [Wisdom and Sirach] for the edification of the people but not for establishing the authority of ecclesiastical dogmas.

Furthermore, Athanasius discussed the biblical canon in his Paschal letter of AD 367. After discussing the contents of both testaments, the bishop of Alexandria states,

For the sake of greater accuracy I must needs, as I write, add this: there are other books outside these, which are not indeed included in the canon, but have been appointed from the time of the fathers to be read to those who are recent converts to our company and wish to be instructed in the word of the true religion. These are the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Sirach, Esther, Judith and Tobit, the so-called “Teaching of the Apostles” [The Didache] and the “Shepherd” [The Shepherd of Hermas]. But while the former are included in the canon and the latter are read, no mention is to be made of the apocryphal works.

In other words, certain LXX books (Tobit, Judith, etc.) are appropriate for reading—even in church!—and helpful for spiritual formation, although they do not rise to the same level of authority as the books shared by Christians and Jews alike. These books are usually called “Apocryphal” by Protestants and “Deuterocanonical” by Roman Catholics. Obviously, there is a good deal of debate about how much authority these materials should be granted, and I commend to you Kevin Edgecomb’s little note “On the Confusion of ‘Canon’” as a great place to start in sorting these issues out.

The situation is, in fact, even more convoluted than this, because different early translations of the Old Testament have different contents. In addition, some of these translations have certain books in an appendix. For example, the appendix to the Latin Vulgate includes 3-4 Ezra, Psalm 151, and the Prayer of Manasseh. The result is that certain Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books are accepted in some communions but not in others. Kevin Edgecomb has done a great service in tabulating these differences on his website, and I urge you to go there if you want the details.

The upshot is this: It is possible to think of the canon of the Old Testament as a circle with a large solid core (the books of the Tanakh or Jewish Bible, however the materials may be arranged), a somewhat fuzzy middle layer (Tobit, Judith, 1-2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch, and the Additions to Daniel and Esther), and an even fuzzier outer boundary where certain books may only be accepted as canonical by one or a few Orthodox bodies (e.g., 3-4 Maccabees).

As an aside, it should be noted that the 1611 King James Version included the Apocryphal books, albeit set apart in a special section between the testaments. (Martin Luther did the same thing in his German Bible.) By order of the king, it was originally illegal to produce a King James Bible that did not include these books. Furthermore, the King James Apocrypha included not only the materials found in the Catholic Deuterocanon but also 1-2 Esdras. In other words, the original King James Bible had more books in it than the Bible your Catholic friends are using today!



  1. Duane says:

    Good discussion, thanks. While not directly related to your post, I wrote up a little etymology of the word “canon” sometime ago that might be of interest.


  2. Doug Chaplin says:

    If you;re interested also in the Anglican view, or at least my take on it, you might want to look here especially towards the latter part of the post.


  3. D. P. says:

    Thanks, Duane and Doug, for adding your two cents.


  4. SingingOwl says:

    Very interesting stuff. I have to come back again to read more carefully. But I may share some of this since I am in the middle of a whirlwind tour of scripture on Sunday mornings. We are on Part III this week, and we’re in Neh. so you know what a sweeping brush I am using. But I am increasingly aware of the almost total lack of basic Bible knowledge, even among “church folk.” I’m trying to paint a very big picture view. It’s been much harder than a regular sermon. Anyway, I’ll be back.


  5. D. P. says:

    I hope you find it helpful, SingingOwl. I’ll have a follow-up on the NT canon posted in another day or two.


  6. Thanks for doing this, D.P. I will direct the layperson I mentioned to this and your NT follow up.


  7. […] first installment, on the canon of the Older or First Testament is here.¬† I expect his post on the New Testament canon, soon.¬† Thanks, Darrell, for rescuing me.¬† […]


Comments are closed.



%d bloggers like this: