The Old Testament canon refers to the set of books that were eventually recognized by Judaism and Christianity as authoritative scripture. The process of deciding which books belonged in the Old Testament canon was a complex one that took place over several centuries.
The foundations for the Old Testament canon were laid in the time of Ezra in the 5th century BC. The Torah, or Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), was accepted as authoritative scripture by this time. However, there was still debate over which other books should be considered scripture. The Sadducees only accepted the Torah, while the Pharisees also accepted the Prophets and other writings.
One of the first official actions to establish an Old Testament canon was taken at the Council of Jamnia around 90 AD. Jewish rabbis gathered to debate which books should be included in the canon. The criteria they used included:
- The book conformed to the Torah and Jewish doctrine
- The book was composed in Hebrew or Aramaic
- The book reflected a time before 300 BC
- The book was accepted as divinely inspired and used in worship
The Council of Jamnia essentially confirmed the tripartite division of the Hebrew scriptures into the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. However, debates continued in the following centuries over certain books like Ecclesiastes, Esther, and others. The final Jewish canon was not completely settled until several centuries later.
When it came to the Christian Old Testament, the early church used the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures). This included books like the deuterocanonical works not found in the traditional Hebrew canon. In the 16th century, Protestant Reformers argued against the deuterocanonical books and affirmed the traditional Jewish canon. Catholic Bibles and Eastern Orthodox Bibles still include the deuterocanonicals today while Protestants do not.
There were some key figures and events that helped shape the Old Testament canon over the centuries:
- Philo and Josephus (1st century AD) – Both referenced a 22 book canon pointing to an established Judaic canon by the 1st century AD.
- Rabbi Akiva (50-135 AD) – He denied canonical status to Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs.
- Jerome (347-420 AD) – Translated the Latin Vulgate using the 22 book Jewish canon. This became the standard for Western Christianity.
- Talmud (500 AD) – The Babylonian Talmud affirmed a 24 book OT canon, influencing Jewish and Protestant canons.
- Reformation (16th century) – Protestant Reformers affirmed the Jewish canon rather than the Catholic canon with deuterocanonicals.
There are also several key factors that contributed to the process of shaping the Old Testament canon:
- Authorship – Books attributed to prophets and respected figures like Moses were more readily accepted.
- Date of composition – Earlier works from the pre-exilic period were favored. Some questioned later works like Esther.
- Language – Most early rabbis said canon books had to be written in Hebrew or Aramaic.
- Doctrinal conformity – Books had to align with Mosaic Law and not contradict the Torah.
- Liturgical use – Books widely used in synagogue worship and readings gained acceptance.
- Inspiration – Books seen as divinely inspired through prophets and the Spirit gained favor.
The Torah – Foundation of the Canon
The Torah, consisting of the five books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, forms the foundation of the Old Testament canon. These books were ascribed to Moses, the great Hebrew prophet and law giver. There are Old Testament references indicating the Torah was kept beside the ark of the covenant (Deut 31:26) and read publicly (2 Kgs 22-23; Neh 8). This suggests its early acceptance as authoritative scripture.
By the 2nd century BC, references to a Torah canon emerge in Jewish literature. The prologue to Sirach refers to a threefold division of the OT canon – the Law, the Prophets, and other Writings. This indicates universal acceptance of the Mosaic Torah by this time. The Torah was the unquestioned core of the Old Testament for all Jewish groups.
The Prophets made up the second major division in the OT canon. This section included the four Major Prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel – as well as the twelve Minor Prophets. The Prophets were seen as spokesmen for God through whom He revealed His word and will. As a result, their writings carried authority akin to the Torah.
The Book of Daniel indicates the prophets were studied diligently as scripture by the 2nd century BC (Dan 9:2). The prologue to Sirach references the Prophets as well. Ezekiel and Jeremiah refer to each other’s writings (Ezra 1:1; Dan 9:2), implying a developing collection of prophetic books. However, some debated certain prophetic books. For example, questions arose over whether to include Ezekiel, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs.
The Writings represent the third and most open-ended section of the Hebrew canon. It contains poetic books like Psalms and Proverbs, the Megillot or Scrolls (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther), as well as historical works like Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles. Contents and numbering of books varied between Jewish groups and over time.
The book of Daniel was included in this third section rather than among the prophets in some canons. There was debate over books like Esther and Ecclesiastes. Ultimately the Writings solidified into a canonical group and were accepted alongside the Torah and the Prophets as scripture. The prologue to Sirach references the Writings as a third category of texts alongside the Law and Prophets.
The Council of Jamnia
The Council of Jamnia represents one of the first definitive steps toward a closed Old Testament canon in Judaism. Around 90 AD, rabbis gathered in Jamnia to debate which books should be included in the Hebrew Bible. The council came after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD, which prompted debates over Jewish identity and the religious texts.
There were several criteria used by rabbis in determining whether a book deserved canonical status. First, the book had to conform to the Torah, the undisputed core of their Scripture and faith. Second, the book had to be composed in Hebrew or Aramaic rather than Greek. Third, it should reflect literary activity from the time before 300 BC when prophecy was believed to have ceased. Fourth, the book had to evidence inspiration and be useful for teaching.
While discussions continued over some books, Jamnia affirmed the tripartite division of the canon into the Law, Prophets, and Writings. It helped exclude books not currently found in the Hebrew Bible like Baruch and Maccabees. The council helped lend greater clarity and boundaries to the concept of a closed Jewish canon.
Views Among Jewish Groups
There was some diversity of thought among Jewish groups over the extent of the OT canon, even after Jamnia. Different Jewish sects in the centuries before and after Christ held to different OT canons. The Sadducees only affirmed the Torah as scripture. On the other extreme, the Essenes and possibly the Pharisees accepted books like Enoch not found in our current Old Testament.
The greatest debates involved books like Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and others. Some questioned Esther since God is not directly mentioned in it. Others debated Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs because of their secular themes. However, by the 2nd century AD, most Jewish groups accepted the 39 book OT canon familiar to us today. This was affirmed by prominent Jewish scholars like Josephus and evidenced by the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Formal Closure of the Jewish Canon
While Jamnia provided significant clarity, the OT canon was not absolutely finalized in Judaism until several centuries later. Some closing of the canon may have taken place at the Jewish Synod of Beth Shearim in 164 AD. However, various local synods continued to debate a few books. It was not until later medieval times that we see absolute closure of the OT canon in Judaism.
The Talmud, which collected Jewish oral traditions, indicates the canon was finalized after the Temple destruction in 70 AD. It recalls how prophets and scholars once lived who composed holy writings and hymns. But after the last Jewish prophets – Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi – the Holy Spirit departed and inspired works ceased. Thus, following this period the Jewish canon was formally closed.
Therefore, by 500 AD in the Talmudic period we see 24 books universally accepted across Judaism. The list matches our current OT canon. This closed set of books has remained the definitive Jewish scriptural canon down to the modern day.
The Septuagint in the Early Church
The early Christian church used the Greek Septuagint translation as its Old Testament rather than the Hebrew canon. The Septuagint contained the Apocrypha – books included with the Writings like Wisdom, Sirach, and Maccabees. The early church quoted freely from the Apocrypha, treating these books as scripture. Eastern Orthodox churches still include the Apocrypha in their OT canons.
However, some church fathers like Jerome argued for the shorter Jewish canon instead. Jerome used the 22 books of the Hebrew Bible when making the Latin Vulgate translation. He said the church reads the Apocrypha for “example of life and instruction of manners,” but does not apply it toward establishing doctrine.
Augustine and others also argued over whether the Apocrypha was fully canonical. Over time, the Vulgate with its limited OT canon profoundly impacted Western Christianity. It reinforced the debate between Protestants and Catholics over the OT canon issue.
The Reformation and the Protestant Canon
The Protestant Reformers generally affirmed the 39 books of the traditional Jewish canon as comprising the Old Testament. They denied the divine inspiration and canonical status of the Apocrypha. Several key reformers articulated this perspective:
- Martin Luther – He separated the Apocrypha into a section between the testaments and denied its full inspiration.
- John Calvin – He rejected the Apocrypha as uninspired and non-authoritative for doctrine.
- The Westminster Confession (1646) – It affirmed the 39 book canon and categorized the Apocrypha as valuable for reading but not authoritative.
The reformers argued their OT canon matched that affirmed at Jamnia and in the Talmud. It also aligned with scholars like Josephus and Jerome. Catholics disputed this perspective and upheld the larger Septuagint canon from Nicaea and Trent. This canon debate has continued between Protestants and Catholics down to the present day.
Evaluating the Formation of the Old Testament Canon
There are several important points to remember when evaluating the formation of the Old Testament canon:
- It was a gradual process over centuries, not a single decision or council.
- God’s providence guided the process amidst debate and uncertainty.
- There were slightly different canons in Judaism until medieval times.
- Discussion continued in early Christianity over the Apocrypha.
- Absolute unity was not achieved, but broad agreement emerged.
The process may seem complicated, but we can have confidence God superintended the development of the canon. Despite some variations, there is remarkable unity around the 39 book OT canon in Judaism, Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism. God ensured His people received His inspired word.
Principles and Criteria for Canonization
The factors involved in deciding the Old Testament canon provide principles we can apply to evaluating scripture. Some key criteria include:
- Apostolicity – Was a book written by or associated with a prophet or apostle? This suggests divine authority.
- Orthodoxy – Does the book contradict established doctrine in the Torah?
- Antiquity – Is the book from the era of prophecy before 300 BC?
- Use in Worship – Was the book widely used in temple and synagogue services?
- Language – Was the original language Hebrew or Aramaic?
- Inspiration – Is there evidence of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration in the writing?
These help establish the antiquity, religious authority and divine inspiration of the books included in the canon. They provide objective guidelines that guided the understanding of early Jews and Christians.
In summary, here are some of the key points about the formation of the Old Testament canon:
- The Torah was accepted very early as an authoritative core.
- The Prophets emerged as a second section, but some books were debated.
- The Writings were the most open category and debated longest.
- Jamnia helped establish the contours of the Jewish canon.
- The Jewish canon was not fixed in entirety until medieval times.
- The Septuagint was used in the early church, adding the Apocrypha.
- Reformers affirmed the 39 book Jewish canon instead.
- Catholics upheld the Apocrypha based on early church tradition.
- God providentially guided the process despite variations.
Understanding this complex history helps us appreciate how God brought His people into agreement on most of the Old Testament canon we have today.