The Old Testament Canon
Who has the right canon?
The canon of the Old Testament is the list of books that
make up the Old Testament.
Protestants and Catholics have different ideas about which
books belong to the canon of the Old Testament,
and the Eastern Orthodox have yet
another opinion -- so one naturally is lead to
ask the question, "which is right?"
In this discussion I intend to focus on the Protestant/Catholic
side of the debate rather than the Eastern Orthodox aspect. It
is not that this isn't worth discussion, merely that so far the
Protestant/Catholic aspect has proved difficult enough. The books
in question are: Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, Tobit, Judith, and I and II
Maccabees. I will call these either "the disputed books" or the
"deuterocanonical books" (a term which originated in the 16th century
and which means "second canon").
1. The Jewish Canon of the Old Testament
One way to attempt to settle the issue is to appeal to the
Jewish people. They, after all, were on the scene longer than
Christians, and the Old Testament scriptures were given to
the world through the Jews.
Sometimes in ancient documents the books of the
Bible have different names than the modern ones that we are
used to. This table is here to help sort out the names
|Modern Name for Book||Ancient Name|
|Ecclesiastes||Song of Songs|
|1 and 2 Chronicles||1 and 2 Parlipomen|
|1 and 2 Samuel||1 and 2 Kings||
|1 and 2 Kings||3 and 4 Kings|
If the Jews recognized a canon and understood it to
be closed (i.e. that no more books could be added to it)
in the time before Christ, then it
should remain fixed in the form they established.
This logically follows if you believe the Bible is inspired. It
seems unthinkable that the text should be inspired, but that the canon should not also be God-given in whatever final form
it comes to us. If this ability to discern the canon is God-given
then Christians should regard a Jewish canon arising from the
pre-Christian era as binding upon them, and should be no more able
to change it than they are able to change the contents of the
On the other hand, if the Jews had not discerned or closed their
canon before the time of Christ (i.e. determined that no more books
could be added to it), if they only came to believe that
the canon was closed only at a later date, then Christians should
not be overly concerned with their conclusions -- for it would be
logical to conclude that the Holy Spirit's inspiration now belonged
to the Christians.
So the first question
we must ask before determining what the proper canon should be
is now this: Did the Jews of the pre-Christian era have a definite
and closed canon?
2. Assessing the Evidence for a Closed Jewish Canon
First, let us start by acknowledging that a canon of sorts existed
long before the time of Christ. The first five books of the Bible,
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were
established as Scripture probably long before any other book and
were at one time the canon.
As time went by, more books gained recognition until the collection
contained nearly all the books of the Protestant canon. Yet there
is a vast difference between saying these books belonged to the
Bible and that no other book could.
One of the most important pieces of evidence in favor of the
forming and closing of the canon at a time prior to Christ
may be found in the writings of Josephus, the Jewish historian.
He writes (at about
100 AD) "It is true our history
has been written since Artaxerxes very
particularly but has not been esteemed
of the like authority with the former by
our forefathers, because there has not
been an exact succession of the prophets
since that time."
One can deduce from this that a canon was established
in a previous time (normally this is taken to be the time
Likewise, he presents an argument why it might
be considered closed -- that there was an exact succession
of prophets that was not maintained after that time. But
when he says "not of like authority" is he expressing a
universal view by all rabbis of the time that the other books
have no authority, or does this mean that various rabbis in
various parts of the world ascribe varying degrees of authority
to the books? If the latter, then his statement would be more
consistent with the idea of a recently closed canon, a canon
closed after Christians had appeared on the scene. It is probably
best not to interpret Josephus' statement too strongly in any event
because his canon does not include Ecclesiastes -- a book
that everyone, Jewish and Christian, now accepts.
I am looking for more links, especially Protestant ones
relating to this issue. If you know of a good one, please
send me email.
2.2 The Council of Jamnia
The next major piece of evidence to be noted is the Council of Jamnia,
which seems to have taken place around 90 AD. This council
established and closed the canon authoritatively for nearly all Jews.
It has been their canon ever since. Yet it should be noted that
the council did not speak
for all Jews, there were Jews living in Ethiopia who either did
not hear of it or did not accept the decision of Jamnia. To this
day they use a different canon than their Palestinian brethren
[Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol 6, p 1147].
2.3 The Septuagint
What Bible does the New Testament quote? Not the Hebrew Bible, since
the majority of the New Testament was composed in Greek.
The Bible used for most Scripture quotations in the New Testament is the same
Bible used by the Ethiopian Jews mentioned above and the same Bible used
by Christians in the earliest centuries of the Church -- it is
named the Septuagint (or LXX). The LXX is a translation of the Old
Testament into Greek that was completed no later than 180 BC.
One of the reasons that the LXX is of value is that expresses the
opinions of the Jewish people in the times prior to Christ, during an
age where later opinions of him could not have biased their writings
or thoughts with respect to Christian issues. In some cases also,
it may well reflect an earlier text than
the present Hebrew.
Isaiah 7:14 became a controversial verse for Jews and Christians
practically from the start -- but it reflects a pre-Christian Jewish
interpretation of the admittedly more vague Hebrew text.
The LXX used the word virgin in its translation, and after
Christians came on the scene and used this word as prophetic of the
type of birth Christ it became an embarrassment to the Jews.
What this verse said about the virgin birth of the Messiah,
together with the fact that the LXX was the version quoted by the
authors of the New Testament, combined with its widespread use before
and after the time of Christ caused many to think that the LXX itself
was inspired. Another strong reason that many believed in the LXX's
inspiration was that a legend sprang up about its
composition -- that the books were translated independently by 72 scholars
and that they arrived at, word for word, the identical translation.
Unfortunately, the oldest copies of the LXX currently in our possession
date from the 4th century, and must have been copied by Christian hands.
The antiquity of the translations can be established, however, from
other considerations. The canon of the LXX is larger than than the present canon
used by the Jews, and includes the books disputed between Catholics
and Protestants (as well as the additions to Daniel and Esther).
The LXX was not
generally available in the form of a modern Bible (although there are
some copies, called codices, which were bound in a form like a modern
book), but as a collection of
scrolls, and thus its table of contents was less fixed. Furthermore,
even in the ancient codices there is some variation in the contents.
One finds books there that both Catholics and Protestants consider
to be non-canonical. In all cases the disputed books are present
in the codices, the only exception is that Maccabees is absent
from one copy of the LXX named Codex Vaticanus.
In any event, one must recognize that at the time
the New Testament was written the LXX was in wide use and was widely
respected by the authors of the New Testament and the Jewish people
living at that time -- otherwise the New Testament writers would not
have made use of it. Rapidly, however, it became more a Christian than
a Jewish book. In fact, I think one can say with little exaggeration
that it became the Christian Old Testament.
Of some interest are the writings of Philo, a prolific Alexandrian Jew
who lived in roughly the time of Christ. Though he gives us no canon,
it is worthy of note that he does not use the books under dispute between
Protestants and Catholics. While it is true, on the other hand, that
there are many books accepted by both that he does not quote -- the
fact that he does not quote Wisdom seems to require explanation since
its contents appear consonant with his thought. It may be that he simply
wanted to convince the widest audience possible with his writings
and therefore chose to stick with the universally accepted portion of
the canon for his support. Unfortunately, we can only speculate about
why he did not quote the disputed books.
Finally, consider that Philo (while prolific) is not the only rabbi
of the period to leave us writings. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes
that a few Palestinian and Babylonian
rabbis quoted the deuterocanonical books, apparently as Scripture.
2.5 The Writers of the New Testament
If the canon of the Bible had been fixed before the time of the
apostles, then why does 2 Pet 3:16 speak of Paul's writing as Scriptures?
Surely this would be an unnatural term for a Jew who had believed in
a closed canon of the Bible. It may even have been that Jews were expecting
new Scripture to be written when the Messiah came. The important
point here is that the concept of a "New Testament" as distinct from
an "Old Testament" is not found until the second century -- before
that there is only "Scripture."
In light of these considerations, it seems reasonable to
say that the Jews did not definitively define and close
their canon prior to the Christian era. We now turn to the
3. The Christian Canon of the Old Testament
If the Jews did not settle on a canon, then when did
the Christians? To some extent we have considered this when
we looked at the significance of the LXX, but it does not
really fix the canon -- although it does support a larger
collection than the Jewish/Protestant one. Here we consider
the writings of the
early Christians. How did they regard the disputed books?
3.1 Did the New Testament define an Old Testament Canon?
Certainly the New Testament writers constitute the earliest group
of early Christian writers.
It has been suggested by some that the New Testament, upon which all
Christian sects agree for its canon, defines an Old Testament
implicitly by the books
it quotes. Unfortunately, this would mean that we must regard the book
of Enoch as part of the Old Testament since it is quoted in Jude, and
only a very few groups of Christians regard Enoch as canonical. This,
however, is not the only case where the New Testament makes use of what
is widely regarded as Apocryphal sources (i.e. "non-canonical" sources).
On the other hand,
Ecclesiastes, Esther, and Canticles are not quoted -- so if the
New Testament defines a canon then these omissions must be explained.
One of the primary witnesses, not in order of time
but certainly in stature against canonicity of the
disputed books comes from a late period, the 4th
century -- St. Jerome. Jerome produced the standard
Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, and he
felt that it was important for this purpose that he
learn Hebrew. He discovered the opinion of the Jews
in the matter of the canon, the falsity of the legend
of the translation of the LXX, and as a result made many disparaging
remarks about the disputed books, "calling them apocrypha"
[this seems to have occurred about 390 AD, see "The Cambridge
History of the Bible" Volume 2, 92]. Moreover, he seems to attach
a certain importance to the idea that there should be 22 books in
the Old Testament -- to accord with the number of Hebrew letters.
This seems to have also been a motivating factor in his rejection
of the deuterocanonical books. In line with the Protestant view,
he also disparages the additions to
Daniel and Esther, in the prefaces to those books. These
remarks were to color the opinion of Christians in the
West from that time forward and most explicit lists of the books
given by the writers after him follow his thinking.
Yet the evidence from Jerome is not altogether against
the books. He sometimes refers to them as "ecclesiastical"
rather than "canonical" or "apocryphal" -- they are
read in the church, but not to be cited for proof
texts of doctrine. [See Jerome, "Against Rufinus"]
He also comments [Again, see "Against Rufinus"]
that he accepts the additions to
Daniel and Esther, and his disparaging remarks against
them in the preface of his translation (so he says
at a later time) are merely
samples of how others argue against the books.
Indeed, in the preface he places most of the remarks
in the mouth of a "certain Jewish teacher." Yet the
fact that he does not respond to this Jewish teacher, and
puts the disputed portion of the book at the end of his
translation as an appendix might easily lead one to believe
that he shared the opinion.
Though he never repudiated his statements that Sirach,
Judith, Tobit Maccabees, and Baruch were apocrypha, we do
find that he was not entirely consistent in his terminology.
At a later time he says, for example, that Judith is the name given to a `sacred
volume', Wisdom is called `Scripture', Sirach is called `holy
Scripture,' etc. [See "The Cambridge History of the Bible", Volume 2,
Origen did much study on the Bible. He learned Hebrew
and labored carefully to produce the best texts. He
notices many differences between the Hebrew passages
used by the Jews and the passages in use by Christians.
Not just in the disputed books, but in Job, Exodus,
etc. He makes this remark, however, that is in line
with the arguments we have made above:
"And, forsooth, when we notice such things, we are
forthwith to reject as spurious the copies in use
in our Churches, and enjoin the brotherhood to put
away the sacred books current among them, and to coax
the Jews, and persuade them to give us copies which
shall be untampered with, and free from forgery! Are
we to suppose that that Providence which in the sacred
Scriptures has ministered to the edification of all the
Churches of Christ, had no thought for those bought
with a price, for whom Christ died; whom, although
His Son, God who is love spared not, but gave Him up
for us all, that with Him He might freely give us all
things?" [A letter from Origen to Africanus, Volume 4
of the Early Church Fathers CD Rom]
3.3.1 Tobias and Judith
Also from "A letter from Origen to Africanus" [Early
Church Fathers CD Rom, Vol 4] we get
the following quote:
"... Where you get your 'lost and won at play, and thrown
out unburied on the streets,' I know not, unless it is
from Tobias; and Tobias (as also Judith), we ought to
notice, the Jews do not use. They are not even found
in the Hebrew Apocrypha, as I learned from the Jews
themselves. However, since the Churches use Tobias,..."
demonstrating that the Church uses Tobias and Judith
despite the fact that the Hebrews refuse to recognize
it. Moreover, the letter to Africanus, which I've
already quoted twice, is essentially a defense of the
story of Susannah as being rightfully part of Scripture, and
Origen's use of it in discussion with a certain Bassus.
He seems, however, to regard the LXX as superior to the
Hebrew text in every way -- too extreme a position as I
think all will agree.
Nevertheless, Origen's letter to Africanus
is quite interesting reading on the whole, and I
encourage any Christian interested in the canon to
read this and other early fathers.
Augustine was a clear exponent of the deuterocanonical books,
explicitly listing them as being on the canon in "City of God."
He derives this from the fact of its wide use in all Christian
churches, and in the legend of its composition by the seventy.
3.5 St. Cyprian
Quotes Tobit (in Testimonies)
along with the other books of
Scripture without distinction.
3.6 St. Hippolytus
Says this about Maccabees:
"Since, then, the angel Gabriel also
recounted these things to the prophet, as
they have been understood by us, as they
have also taken place, and as they have
been all clearly described in the books of
Several local councils of the Church were to endorse the
books later to be endorsed by Trent. These were, the Council
of Rome (AD 382), Hippo (AD 393), and Carthage (AD 397 and 419).
The Council of Nicea II (AD 797) approved everything said by
Carthage (AD 419).
The Book of Wisdom
The book of Wisdom is one of the deuterocanonical books
that has the interesting distinction of being
the only book to ever be found on ancient lists of both
the Old and New Testaments. In fact, the earliest
canon of the New Testament, the Muratorian canon, contains
the book of Wisdom.
It is difficult to know why this book should have been on
the New Testament canon, and it should be remembered that
the Muratorian canon is believed to be a private listing
of Scripture, not a public or official one. One may guess
that the author of this canon felt strongly that Wisdom
was Scripture, but was aware that the Jews of the time did
not, and thought -- given that the New Testament church
saw Christ as the personification of Wisdom -- that perhaps
the best way of reconciling these facts was to consider
Wisdom a New Testament book.
Whatever conclusions one may draw from this list, it is
clear that its author regarded the book of Wisdom as
We have arrived at an awkward position. The Jewish canon
seems not to have been closed,
and Christians relied on the decidedly larger
but somewhat uncertain
canon of the LXX -- until the time of Jerome when at which
time many felt that the Jewish canon was more worthy of
attention. One is left with a canon that remained uncertain
until a very late period consisting of two parts. A list of
books which all were certain about and a list of several more that
had an uncertain status. Some regarded the deuteros as being merely
apocryphal or non-canonical (following Jerome's preface), but
others regarded as Scripture (following Augustine or Origen)
or perhaps as quasi-Scripture. For this reason I find the
claim that Protestants removed books from Scripture to be
roughly as exaggerated as the claim
that Catholics added the books at the Council of Trent. The
truth, it seems, was that an ambiguity truly existed which
was very difficult to resolve.
This ambiguity persisted until the time of the Reformation
at which time Trent was called upon to make a pronouncement with
regard to their status. Trent did not attempt a careful examination
of history or archeology, but based it first on the fact that the
books were read
alongside other sacred books in worship and had been since the
beginning, and second the
pronouncements of previous councils.
In other words, it trusted that the Holy Spirit would be most efficacious
in working through the universal
practice of reading the books in the Churches, or in authoritative
pronouncements accepted by many Churches
rather than the individual
opinions of Jerome, those following him, or the beliefs of the Hebrews.
Should you accept the Deuterocanonical books as Scripture? Hopefully
this essay will be of some use to you in deciding.
Mail me your comments