The Old Testament Canon

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Alden Thompson, “The Old Testament Canon,” in Doug Clark and John Brunt, eds., Introducing the Bible, Vol. 1: The Old Testament and Intertestamental Literature (Lanham, New York, Oxford: University Press of America, 1997), 13-28.
The Old Testament Canon
As children, we simply "knew" our Bible was true. But questions come with maturity, often sharpened by conflict within our own community of believers or by confrontation with a different community claiming a different sacred text. Jews revere the same Bible Jesus used; Christians also accept Jesus' Bible, renaming it the Old Testament, but adding to it the Bible about Jesus, the New Testament. Why?

That's a question of canon. But the issue of canonicity moves beyond the more global contrast between the Jewish and Christian Bibles. It takes us to more subtle and tantalizing questions, tantalizing because the trail is so faint, especially for the Old Testament: How and why did authority come to be attached to these particular books? Why these and not others?

Devout believers do not always rejoice to hear the story of the formation and transmission of biblical books. For some, laying bare the human element in the process seems to put biblical authority at risk. Studying the canonization process can arouse the same fears. But faith can recognize the hand of God even in the most human events. The Incarnation teaches us that. And in an increasingly pluralistic age, it is important to explore the question of how and why a community comes to recognize a particular collection of books as Scripture. We will address that question here, focusing on the Old Testament.

Our English word "canon" comes to us from a Greek word with Semitic roots. Originally referring to a (straight) reed which could be used as a measure or standard, "canon" is used in that sense in Galatians 6:16 where it is translated as "rule" by both NRSV and NIV. In current usage, when applied to Scripture, "canon" refers to a clearly defined set of sacred writings which a community of believers holds as a standard or rule of faith. But such a use of "canon" to refer to a set list of inspired books is not confirmed until well after the close of the biblical era, the first clear instance coming in 367 C. E. from Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in an Easter letter listing the 27 New Testament books.

But even if the term "canon" arrives late on the scene, other words and phrases point to something like a canonizing process as certain writings become recognized as special. The New Testament, for example, refers to the Bible (OT) as "scripture" (John 2:22; Acts 8:32), "the scriptures" (Mark 12:24; 1 Cor. 15:3-4), or the "book" (Heb. 10:7). In Judaism, phrases like "the books" (Dan. 9:2), "the other books of our fathers" or "the rest of the books" (Greek prologue to Ecclesiasticus) may refer to Scripture, but not always clearly or consistently so. In short, terms which set apart certain writings as sacred or prophetic may not yet mean that they are canonical. And the Old Testament established the precedent, for the "prophetic" books written by Nathan, Gad, Ahijah and Iddo were not included in the canon (1 Chron. 29:29; 2 Chron. 9:29).

Thus "canon" does not distinguish true from false, or even inspired from uninspired. Rather, it signifies what the community has accepted from within its heritage as being of enduring and normative value for the life of the community. And if it is a community of faith, it will recognize God's hand in the events that led step by step to produce a stable canon as a guide for his people. A significant element, therefore, in understanding "canon" and "canonicity," involves exploring the relationship between canon and community. In what follows that will be our first task.

A second task will be to trace the movement from fluidity to stability in the development of the authoritative (canonical) collection of books which Christians call the Old Testament.

A third task will be to observe canonical thinking at work within the Old Testament canon. The internal process of appealing to authoritative words and books actually precedes the external one of determining the final shape of the authoritative collection. And in many ways that internal process is more helpful for illustrating how an ancient text, testifying to the work of the Spirit in a different time and place, can still be a medium through which the Spirit can speak in a dynamic way in a modern setting.

Fourth, and finally, we will look at the unifying elements within the Old Testament canon in order to discover what binds us to them as members of one community of faith, a community that worships the same God, and trusts to the guidance of the same Spirit.
Canon and Community

Many religions hold to a unique collection of writings as "scripture" or sacred "canon." The impressive list includes, among others: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism. Each group has a unique canon. Even for the groups that hear God speaking to them in the Bible, the limits of "canon" vary considerably.

Among the groups that revere all or part of the Bible as God's Word, the most compact canon belongs to the Samaritans: they accept only the five books of Moses. But from there the number of books in each canon begins to mount. Jews also accept the five books of Moses as Law (Torah), but add eight more as Prophets (Nebiim): the Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings (counting double books as one); and the Latter Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve (counting the twelve minor prophets as one); and eleven more as Writings (Ketubim): Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles. The Jewish canon is the same as the Protestant Old Testament, but simply enumerates the 39 books differently for a total of 24.

Protestant Christians add the 27 New Testament books to their Bible for a total of 66. Roman Catholics creep up to a total of 73 by adding the deuterocanonical books (by vote of the Council of Trent, 1546) – two expanded versions of Old Testament books and seven "new" ones ("old," actually, for all were written during the intertestamental period and belong to the Protestant Apocrypha). The additional books are Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah (together), 1 and 2 Maccabees. The two books expanded by additions from the Greek Bible are Daniel (with three stories: the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon) and Esther.

The Greek Orthodox Church accepts all the Catholic books but moves up to a total of 76 by adding the Prayer of Manasseh, 1 Esdras, and 3 Maccabees, and joining Psalm 151 to the Psalter as well. The Slavonic canon adds yet another book, 2 Esdras (renaming 1 and 2 Esdras as 2 and 3 Esdras) for a total of 77. Other Eastern churches reach 78 by adding 4 Maccabees.1

Finally, the Ethiopic Church has the most expansive Bible of all and introduces the idea of a "narrower" and "broader" canon. Though its broader New Testament canon adds eight items for a total of 35, the total for the whole Bible remains at 81 (in both narrower and broader canons) because the Old Testament books are divided differently when the broader canon is used. The Ethiopic Old Testament includes all the books noted above plus Jubilees and 1 Enoch (intertestamental books normally classed as Old Testament Pseudepigrapha), along with the medieval Josippon, a popularlized history of the Jews.2

Ranking the various canons in ascending order by number of books produces the following list:
Community Number of books

Samaritan 5

Jewish 24 (39)

Protestant 66

Roman Catholic 73

Orthodox and Slavonic 76-78

Ethiopic 81
As a kind of post script, it may be noted that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) has expanded the canon in another way, namely, by opening it to three books of recent vintage. Their canon is unique and sets Mormons apart from other communities, just as canon has always done.

The link between canon and community is foreshadowed in the Old Testament itself in the events that marked the split between Jews and Samaritans. After the northern kingdom of Israel and its capital Samaria fell to the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E., the Assyrians implemented one of their ruthless methods of dealing with subject peoples, namely, exportation of native population and importation of foreign stock to reduce the danger of nationalistic insurrections.

As described in 2 Kings 17, in language reflecting the Old Testament idea of "national" deities, lions were said to have attacked the population because the newcomers were not worshiping Yahweh and did not know "the law of the god of the land" (2 Kings 17:26, NRSV). When the King of Assyria heard about the problem, he sent a priest of Yahweh to instruct the newcomers. As a result, these former pagans began to worship Yahweh. But, in the horrified view of the canonical writer from the southern kingdom of Judah, their paganism remained intact: "So they worshiped the LORD but also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away. To this day they continue to practice their former customs" (2 Kings 17:33-34, NRSV).

The implications of such mixed blood and mixed religion left their mark on the Chronicler, too. In an account not included in Kings, the Chronicler says that Hezekiah sent a royal passover proclamation from "Beersheba to Dan" (2 Chron. 30:5), in other words, to everyone within the borders of the old united Davidic kingdom. But his couriers to the north met mostly with laughter, scorn, and mockery (2 Chron. 30:10); "only a few from Asher, Manasseh, and Zebulun humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem" (2 Chron. 30:11), and many who did come hadn't properly cleansed themselves for the Passover (2 Chron. 30:18).

While the Chronicler's chronology is problematic (he omits all formal cross-references to the kings in the north), such a bold foray into the north would seem to assume that the northern kingdom had already collapsed. That impression of a leaderless north is reinforced by the Chronicler's report that Hezekiah's Passover inspired a massive search and destroy operation of all "high places" and "altars," even in the northern tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh (2 Chron. 31:1).

In short, the Chronicler's hostile view of religious attitudes in the north shows that his post-exilic thinking had been shaped by the events described in 2 Kings 17: the pure worship of Yahweh had virtually disappeared from the land. But, we can easily imagine him saying, what do you expect from people of mixed blood and mixed religion?

The antipathy between north and south is even more explicit when Ezra 4 describes the attempt by the returned exiles to rebuild the temple under Zerubbabel (ca. 536 B.C.E). The "adversaries" of Judah offer to help with the project because "we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of King Esarhaddon of Assyria who brought us here" (Ezra 4:2, NRSV). The Jews flatly refuse their offer: "We alone will build to the LORD, the God of Israel" (Ezra 4:3, NRSV).

And they did. But according to Josephus (Antiquities 11:321-324), the Samaritans built a temple, too, on Mt. Gerizim (ca. 330 B.C.E), led by Sanballet and authorized by Alexander the Great. The chronology is again problematic; even the existence of a temple of the magnitude suggested by Josephus is doubtful.3 But whatever worship apparatus the Samaritans had on Mt. Gerizim, John Hyrcanus, the Hasmonean (the family that ruled Judea since the Maccabean revolt), destroyed it in 128 B.C.E., along with the Samaritan city of Shechem. In 107 B.C.E. Hyrcanus again attacked Shechem, this time obliterating it to the point of no recovery. In time, the nearby city of Nablus became the new center of Samaritanism.

Now if Jewish sources have denounced the Samaritans as deviants of impure blood and religion, the Samaritans have responded in kind, accusing the Jews of unfaithfulness. Samaritan theology puts the schism back in the days of Eli when Israel moved its place of worship from Shechem to Shiloh and instituted an illegitimate priesthood. Samaritans see the "Era of Divine Favor" as having extended from Moses to Eli and expect it to be restored with the coming of the savior. Today the small group of Samaritans waiting for that day has grown to about 400, equally divided between Nablus and Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv.4

When did the schism take place and how did it shape the canon? The nature of the evidence makes that a difficult question to answer. One 14th century Samaritan source, the Samaritan Chronicle of Abu'l Fath, declares that Sanballet and Zerubbabel, subsequent leaders of the post-exilic Samaritans and Jews respectively, were already feuding during the exile in Babylon over the proposed site of the restored temple. And in the fifth century, the Elephantine papyri reveal that the Jews of Elephantine in Egypt had written both to the governor of Samaria (Sanballet) and to the governor of Jerusalem (Bagoas) to ask for permission to rebuild their own Jewish temple. Thus, even in the post-exilic period, both Samaritans and Jews were claiming to be the true inheritors of the Abrahamic and Mosaic tradition.

Today, Samaritans are a devout, conservative group, keeping the Sabbath with great care and following the ritual law without resorting to the various accommodations used by Jews to adapt to modern culture. Their insistence that only the Pentateuch is truly God's Word correlates with their claim that the Era of Divine Favor was the era of Moses and that the Jewish apostasy began with Eli. Thus they reject even some of the prophetic books that no doubt had already attained canonical status among the Jews at the time the split was supposed to have taken place. But whatever the correct interpretation of the polemic on both sides, one thing is clear: the tensions between the groups were deep and abiding. And the choice of "canon" on both sides reinforced the boundaries of both communities.

In summing up the relationship between canon and community, it may be noted that boundaries are often drawn when one group wishes to expand the canon or to contract it. The Samaritans represented a contraction, the Jews an expansion. But over against the Jews, Christians expanded the canon to include the New Testament and the Jews chose to contract. At the time of the Reformation, the Reformers moved toward contraction by reducing the authority of the Apocrypha; Catholics responded in the direction of expansion by formally accepting the deuterocanonical books at the Council of Trent (1546). In short, key issues between believing communities often have been articulated in terms of canon. Where has God spoken his last and best word? Believing communities answer that question in terms of canon. And to form a new canon is to form a new community.

Canon: From Fluidity to Stability

During the time when the Old Testament canon was being formed, the very idea of an approved "list" is puzzling, for the books were not bound together in a single volume, but circulated as separate scrolls. In the Graeco-Roman world, a papyrus or parchment scroll was the standard book format and for the sake of convenience seldom exceeded 35 feet in length. But finding a specific text in a scroll is a pain, and the bigger the scroll, the worse it gets. "A big book is a big nuisance," quipped a professional librarian from Alexandria.5

Given the way Christians cited prophetic "proofs" from the Old Testament, they had good reason for switching from cumbersome scrolls to the more convenient codex or leaf-format for books. Indeed, Christians are given the credit for popularizing the codex, beginning as early as the first century. By the fourth or fifth century C. E., Jews, too, were using the codex, reserving the scroll format for ceremonial use. But during the formative years of the canon, the Old Testament books circulated as separate scrolls.

As noted about, the Jewish enumeration of 24 books (confirmed in 4 Ezra 14:44-46 at the end of the first century C.E.) results from combining some of the 39 books numbered separately in the Protestant Old Testament. Josephus (Against Apion 1:37-43) and some other later sources mention 22 books, the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Such a number could be reached by including Ruth with Judges and Lamentations with Jeremiah. But numbering aside, one conclusion is still clear: the completed canon did not just suddenly appear; it was a process taking place over time. We will consider the tantalizing and fragmentary evidence for that conclusion under five main headings: 1) Explicit information from within the Old and New Testaments; 2) History of the Masoretic Text (MT), the "official" Hebrew Bible; 3) History of the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek Old Testament and the "unofficial" Christian Old Testament; 4) Dead Sea Scrolls; 5) Council of Jamnia and Jewish sources.

1) Explicit Biblical Information. The Old Testament is sprinkled with references to written documents, both as sources (e.g. Gen. 5:1; Num. 21:14; 1 Kings 11:41; 2 Kings 1:18; 1 Chron. 9:1; 2 Chron. 20:34) and as finished documents (e.g. Ex. 24:7; Deut. 31:24-26; 2 Chron. 34:14). Even compilations are explicitly marked as such (e.g. Ps. 72:20; Prov. 25:1). But when it comes to the finished documents, the Old Testament shows almost no interest in our modern sense of "authorship." In time, the Law (Pentateuch) came to be linked with Moses, Psalms with David, and Proverbs with Solomon. And in each case, the Old Testament itself affirms the contribution to the literature which later would carry their names: Moses records lists (Num. 33:2) and laws (Ex. 24:4); David's songs appear in the narrative books (2 Sam. 22:1; 23:1; 1 Chron. 16:7) and no less than 73 of the Psalms carry his name in their headings (e.g. Pss. 3-9); Solomon's name is attached to three collections within Proverbs (Prov. 1:1; 10:1; 25:1) and according to 1 Kings 4:32 he wrote 3000 proverbs and 1005 songs.

But if Moses, David, and Solomon became famous as writers or composers, the books that have carried their names also show the work of others: Moses' death, for example, is described in Deuteronomy 34, the closing chapter of "the books of Moses"; David's name appears in the headings of 73 psalms, but other names appear in many of the rest: Asaph (50; 73-83), the sons of Korah (42-49; 84-85; 87-88), Solomon (72, 127), and Heman (88), Ethan (89), and Moses (90); "Solomon's" book, Proverbs, includes chapters by Agur son of Jakeh (30) and by King Lemuel's mother (31). To be sure, later interpreters have attempted to preserve the idea of single authorship. Jewish tradition claimed that Moses saw his own death in vision and described what he saw with tears streaming down his face. Similarly, Agur and Lemuel have been seen simply as other names for Solomon. But all that is special pleading. The Old Testament simply is not interested in our modern ideas of authorship.

What is important in the Old Testament, however, is the power and authority of the Word of God. Even though specific books or complete collections were not yet recognized as "canon," words, both oral and written, had power over God's people. That was especially true of the Law (e.g. Moses' Book of the Covenant, Ex. 24:4-7) and the Prophets (e.g. Jeremiah's scroll, Jer. 36), but less so for the diverse books in the Writings.

We cannot say with certainty when the Law had reached its final form. Many scholars put the date at around 400 B.C.E. It could have been earlier. The pre-exilic "book of the law," discovered in the temple in 621 B.C.E during Josiah's reform (2 Kings 22-23; 2 Chron. 34), was obviously held in high esteem by both king and people. At the least, it contained all or part of Deuteronomy. "The book of the law of Moses" which Ezra read to the returned exiles (Neh. 8:1; ca. 440 B.C.E) was similarly revered. Thus, though the specific limits of Torah (Law) cannot be confirmed, even for Ezra's day, it is the one section of the Hebrew Bible that had established a name for itself. No such comparable evidence exists within the Old Testament for the other sections of the Hebrew Bible, the Prophets and the Writings.

Moving ahead several hundred years to the New Testament, we find evidence for the three-fold division of the law in Luke 24:44 where Jesus refers to "the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms," the psalms being the largest book in the Writings. Some take this reference as evidence for a finished canon. But it may be significant that Luke does not identify the third section by its traditional name.

Whatever the status of the "Writings" in the first century, however, Matthew's references to "the law and the prophets" (Matt. 7:12; 22:40) confirm the evidence from elsewhere that these two sections had reached their final form. Indeed, "law and prophets" almost sounds like a generic phrase encompassing all Scripture. Yet we cannot overlook the passage, found in both Matthew and Luke, that refers to the first and last murders in the traditional Hebrew Bible. Matthew 23:35 and Luke 11:51 both mention the killing of Abel and Zechariah, the first murder in Genesis (Gen. 4:8) and the last murder in Chronicles (2 Chron. 24:20), the last book of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus' logic suggests that the canon was complete. Or put more cautiously, a completed canon would certainly make his logic more cogent and compelling: "This generation," Jesus says, will "be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah" (Luke 11:51, NRSV). While the Hebrew Bible does not invariably maintain the Genesis-Chronicles pairing as first and last books (interesting exceptions surface even many centuries later), it is nevertheless striking that both Gospels include a logical sequence that seems dependent on the traditional order of books in the completed Hebrew Bible. For that reason, some have argued that the Law was canonized by 400 B.C.E., the Prophets by 200 B.C.E., and the Writings by 100 B.C.E. But the date for the Writings is much debated; some scholars put its stabilization and acceptance some 200 years later, at the end of the first century C.E. As we will note below, other evidence has a bearing on the question.

2) Masoretic Text. The Hebrew Bible earned the name "Masoretic Text" (MT) through the monumental work of the Masoretes, a devout community of Jewish scribes who carefully transcribed the Hebrew Bible and sought to preserve traditional pronunciation by developing a system of vowel "pointing," i.e. dots and lines added to the heretofore vowelless Hebrew text without disturbing any of the consonants. Active between 500 and 1000 CE, the Masoretes copied biblical manuscripts with awesome precision, even marking the middle letter of a book, for example, so they could retrace their steps and count the letters they had copied to make sure they had made no mistakes. Above all else, the Masoretes were dedicated to a stable and fixed text, the Word of God from which no jot or tittle would ever pass.

Both the content, 24 books, and the text of the Hebrew Bible seem to have stabilized by the end of the first century C. E. A commonly accepted theory is that the Hebrew text underlying the Greek Bible (Septuagint = LXX) was preserved by Egyptian Jews, while the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP) represents Palestinian Judaism, and the MT, Babylonian Judaism. The Babylonian tradition became the standard Hebrew Bible, and in time became known as the Masoretic Text because of the later work of the Masoretes.

Because of the stability of the MT tradition, evidence for fluidity in its order of books is particularly interesting. The fluidity appears exclusively in the Latter Prophets and in the Writings, but there it continues even into the twentieth century, for the standard "critical" text of the Hebrew Bible (Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia = BHS) departs from the order of its famous basis manuscript, the Leningrad Codex 19A (= Leningradensis [L], 1008 B.C.E.). L and the Aleppo Codex, L's companion tenth century manuscript, both have Chronicles at the head of the Writings; but BHS follows the more traditional order and moves Chronicles to the end.

The block of material that stabilized early was the Law and Former Prophets (= Genesis to Kings [minus Ruth] in the English Bible). A single story line from creation to the fall of Jerusalem made such stability easy to attain and maintain, even when the books circulated as scrolls. It may have been complete as early as Ezra's day. After Kings, the MT consistently follows with the three major prophets, then the twelve minor ones. The Writings are always last.

For the Latter Prophets, the Leningrad and Aleppo manuscripts maintain the traditional order: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Twelve, a sequence already found in the second century B.C.E. in Sirach 48-49 (48:23; 49:6-8). But a Talmud tradition from the second century C.E. (Baba Bathra 14b) moves Isaiah after Ezekiel to be with Hosea, his contemporary in the Twelve. That order is found in a number of manuscripts, some even dating after the Leningrad Codex.

As for the Writings, some manuscripts put Ruth just before the Psalms. Most, however, kept the Five Great Scrolls (Megilloth) together. Only with the advent of printing, however, did these follow the calendar order of the four feasts and one fast at which each was read: Song of Solomon (Passover), Ruth (Weeks), Lamentations (Fast of 9th of Ab), Ecclesiastes (Booths), and Esther (Purim).

In short, the MT testifies that while books and text were secure by the first century C. E., the order was not, except for the Genesis-Kings sequence. The greatest fluidity of order was among the books belonging to the Writings, a fluidity even more pronounced in the Septuagint, the Christian Old Testament.

3) Septuagint. Greek translations of the Old Testament began in the third century B.C.E. When Christians took over the earliest of these, the Septuagint, Greek-speaking Jews shifted to other Greek translations, usually those of Aquilla, Theodotion, or Symmachus.

Fragments of early LXX manuscripts have come to light among the Dead Sea Scrolls and collections of early papyri. But all copies of the complete Septuagint known today were produced and preserved by Christians. Interestingly enough, all these early LXX codices include the Apocrypha, and sometimes one or more of the Pseudepigrapha. Though the Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphical books were all written by Jews, Judaism never accepted any of them as canonical. And the variety evident within the LXX tradition argues against anything like the so-called "Alexandrian canon," sometimes proposed as an alternative canon for Jews of the Diaspora or Dispersion (Jews living outside Palestine).

Unlike the MT tradition, the LXX shows little interest in a three-part canon. But, like the Hebrew Bible, the history from creation to exile is quite consistent, with Ruth added after Judges and Chronicles following Kings. In contrast with the Hebrew Bible, the LXX manuscripts sometimes re-order the Twelve and sometimes move the three major prophets and Daniel after the Twelve. In general, the order following Chronicles exhibits significant variety, suggesting that the break between Jews and Christians took place before the canonical process was complete. Though several of the leading church fathers, including Origen (d. 254) and Augustine (d. 430), recognized that the books in the Apocrypha were not on the same level with the rest of Scripture, it was Jerome (d. 420), who, by basing his Latin Vulgate on the Hebrew Bible instead of the LXX, laid the foundation for the later rejection of the Apocrypha by the Protestant Reformers.

Finally, with reference to the LXX, it should be noted that several of the books in the LXX vary significantly from their counterparts in the Hebrew Bible. Job, for example, is about one sixth shorter in the LXX, apparently because the Greek translator simply left out passages in Hebrew that were to tough to translate! Jeremiah, too, is shorter in the LXX, about one eighth, mostly through the omission of individual words and phrases. The LXX also rearranges the text of Jeremiah, moving the "Oracles Against the Nations" (Jer. 46-51) to follow 25:13.

4) Dead Sea Scrolls. Ever since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls near Qumran in 1947 (with continued finds in the following years), biblical studies have been in a state of creative ferment. Though additional discoveries have illuminated the period between the two great Jewish revolts (70 B.C.E. and 135 B. C. E.), all of the documents from the Qumran caves themselves seem to have come from the theological library of a single Jewish sect that had separated itself from the main body of Judaism as represented by the leaders in Jerusalem. The community was active from the middle of the second century B.C.E. until Roman troops destroyed it in 68 C.E.

With Esther as the only exception, every book from the Hebrew Bible is represented among the scrolls and fragments found in the 11 Qumran caves. But since they all date from before the development of the codex, they cannot provide definitive evidence for the shape of the Hebrew canon. Nevertheless, the distribution of books represented among the manuscripts is fascinating:6 some 30 copies of a Psalter or Psalters have been identified, 25 of Deuteronomy, 20 of Isaiah, 15 of Genesis, 15 of Exodus, 8 of Leviticus, 6 of Numbers, 8 of the Minor Prophets, 8 of Daniel, 8 of Numbers, 6 of Ezekiel, 5 of Job, 4 of Samuel, 4 of Jeremiah, 4 of Ruth, 4 of Song of Solomon, 4 of Lamentations, 3 of Judges, 3 of Kings, 2 of Joshua, 2 of Proverbs, 2 of Qohelet, and a single fragment each of Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles.

Interpreting this selection of books is a challenge. Typically, the absence of any explicit reference to God or prayer in the book of Esther has been seen as the reason for its non-appearance among the DSS. Given the intense piety evident at Qumran, the sect might have been expected to reject the book that gave birth to the highly secularized Jewish festival of Purim. And that may have been the case. Yet with the notable exception of the Psalms, few books from the Writings have scored well at Qumran.

And if one looks only at the "score," what about the Pentateuch with 25 copies of Deuteronomy but only 8 each for Leviticus and Numbers? Was the Pentateuch also controversial? Most likely not. We're dealing with the accidents of discovery some 2000 years after the fact, and several discoveries, at that, from several caves over a period of several years. While the scrolls are enormously important, their discovery is not like opening the sealed tomb of King Tutankhamen at a particular point in time. We don't have their complete library. And the low census for Leviticus has to be balanced against Qumran's intense and well-documented preoccupation with Levitical ritual.

But perhaps the most intriguing evidence for fluidity at Qumran involves the numerous Psalm scrolls (30), more than any other biblical book. Still, 35 of the 150 Masoretic psalms are lacking, even in fragmentary form. But there is no pattern to the lack and no block of psalms missing as a whole. The most notable absence is 110, the "Melchizedek" Psalm and the New Testament's favorite "messianic" psalm. Yet the fact that 110 is missing should be treated with caution, for other documents among the DSS have shown that Melchizedek played a prominent role in the thinking of the Qumran people.

The most striking evidence for fluidity in the Psalter comes from the remarkably well-preserved Psalm Scroll from Cave 11. Of the nearly 50 psalms that can be recognized in the scroll as it now is, 41 also appear in the MT Psalter. But eight do not. Four of them were previously unknown and four were known only in Greek or Syriac translation. Such fluidity within the Psalter apparently continued for centuries. James Sanders notes that "Psalters of up to 200 psalms are reported as late as the middle ages."7

5) Council of Jamnia and Jewish Sources. Since the 19th century, the Council of Jamnia (90 B.C.E.) has often been seen as the event that fixed the Hebrew canon. J. P. Lewis, however, has shown convincingly that Jamnia (Jabneh) never functioned in the same way that later church councils did in making authoritative decisions.8 But even if there was no formal "decision" at a council in the late first century C.E., the question of when the canon was closed is still much debated.

Jamnia is said to have questioned five books: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Esther, and Ezekiel. Some of the rabbis voiced concerns about contradictions, especially in Proverbs and Ezekiel; some worried about inappropriate tone and content: Song of Solomon was too racy, Ecclesiastes too melancholy, Esther too secular. Interestingly enough, Ezekiel is in the prophets while the other four are all in the Writings. Because a prophetic book came up for discussion, some argue that Jamnia was simply discussing troublesome books in a canon already closed 200 years earlier. Others argue that the evidence points to the end of the first century C.E. as the time of stabilization, even if it wasn't a formal council decision that made it happen.

The Jewish term Tanak refers to the three-fold division of the Hebrew Bible: Torah, Nebiim, and Ketubim. And evidence for such a tripartite form appears in Jewish sources of the intertestamental and New Testament periods. The Prologue to Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), for example, written in 132 B.C.E., refers to Law, Prophets, and "the other books" or "the rest of the books," confirming the three parts, but giving specific names only to the first two.

But some sources suggest continued fluidity rather than stability. In 124 B.C.E. the author of 2 Maccabees mentions Nehemiah's "records" and "memoirs" and says that Nehemiah "founded a library and collected the books about the kings and prophets, and the writings of David, and letters of kings about votive offerings" (2 Macc. 2:13). Then with reference to the events surrounding Antiochus Epiphanes' desecration of the temple (168/67 - 165/64 B.C.E.), the author says that Judas (Maccabeus) "also collected all the books that had been lost on account of the war" (2 Macc. 2:14). Such comments are hardly decisive for determining any final shape of the canon. Philo (20 B.C.E. - 50 C.E.) is similarly unclear when he speaks of "laws and oracles delivered through the mouth of prophets, and psalms" (The Contemplative Life 25).

Summing up, we could say that the external shape of the Hebrew canon, was virtually finished by the end of the first century C.E. The number of books was clear (24), though the order, especially in the Writings was not. Though the Hebrew text had virtually stabilized, the LXX tradition would continue keep the Christian Old Testament canon fluid. Jerome took the first step towards stabilization by adopting the Hebrew text as the basis for his Latin Vulgate. The Reformers took the second and final step by insisting on returning to the original languages for all their Bible translations.

In the course of time, ordinary believers often lose sight of the gradual nature of the canonization process. But all believers everywhere have affirmed that God's hand directed the process, so that his Word could be preserved to bless his people.
Canonical Thinking at Work in the Old Testament

Long before the canon of the Old Testament reached its final form, God's people were citing authoritative words and traditions from the past to shape their present lives. One of the most striking instances involved Josiah's reform in 621 B.C.E., when the newly rediscovered book of the law (Deuteronomy?) gave fresh impetus to the work of revival and reform (2 Kings 22-23; 2 Chron. 34). Another example, involving a rare direct quote from another biblical book, is the citation of Micah 3:12 in Jeremiah 26:18. There the people suddenly remember that Micah's threats against Jerusalem had not materialized because Hezekiah had repented and the LORD had relented. Their "memory" of that earlier event tempered their anger against Jeremiah and they backed away from their threat to kill him.

In the completed canon, all this lively give-and-take is preserved for later generations. As Sanders puts it, "To call a tradition or text `canonical' is to say it will be available for later communities to apply to their new situations."9 The diversity of the historical situations faced by God's people can often mean apparent or outright contradictions within the canon. In the name of God, Isaiah counseled King Hezekiah to resist the foreign invaders from Mesopotamia (Assyria). But 100 years later, in the name of the same holy God, Jeremiah counseled the kings of Judah to surrender to the foreigner invaders from Mesopotamia (Babylon). Jeremiah even quoted an oracle of the LORD that referred to Babylon's King Nebuchadrezzar as "my servant" (Jer. 25:9)

Later generations must ponder, puzzle, and pray over such contradictions. But if the canon has preserved them, they are there for God's Spirit to use as needed. God may call his people to stand firm (Isaiah) or surrender (Jeremiah). Or to borrow a New Testament phrase from Paul, God or his messengers may threaten with the "stick" or comfort with "love in a spirit of gentleness" (1 Cor. 4:21, NRSV). Canon is seldom automatic in its applications. But it calls God's people to return to him and to his Word that they might learn how to live for him and before him in the world which he created and has promised to restore.

Canon: The Unifying Elements

Twice in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus summarizes the essence of Law and Prophets. In Matthew 7:12, the Contemporary English Version puts it this way: "Treat others as you want them to treat you. This is what the Law and the Prophets are all about." That same translation sums up the implications of Jesus' two great commands, love to God and love to each other, as follows: "All the Law of Moses and the Books of the Prophets are based on these two commandments" (Matt. 22:40).

Is there evidence for that kind of focus in the Old Testament? Yes, but perhaps not as clear. Reading the Old Testament story of sin and salvation without reference to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ may make it more difficult to see the clarity of those principles in the Old Testament. But that shouldn't be a problem, for Christians have always said that Jesus Christ is the "better" revelation. Yet Jesus' Bible was the Old Testament and he claimed to be the God of the Old Testament. Thus our Christian calling demands that we take the Old Testament as Scripture. And when we do that, the salient points are remarkably clear. God leads, saves, and judges. He establishes the principles of love, righteousness, and justice. And as far as our responsibilities are concerned, they could not be stated more clearly than in Micah 6:8 (NRSV): "He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"

Given the diverse circumstances in our modern world, the diversity preserved within the canon is not the problem that some perceive it to be, but rather the solution. There may be diverse creation accounts, but one thing is clear: God creates!. There may be diverse eschatologies, but one thing is clear: God will restore the earth. God may have revealed himself in "many and various ways" (Heb. 1:1, NRSV), but one thing is clear, he has revealed himself. And canon is the enduring distillation of that revelation, gently nudged into place over time by the guidance of the Spirit. It preserves for us all that we need so that we may live for him in a complex and modern world.

Further Reading:
Beckwith, Roger

1982 "Canon of the Old Testament" in New Bible Dictionary, 2nd ed. Ed. J. D. Douglas, et al. Wheaton: Tyndale House, pp. 166-171.

1993 "Canon: Canon of the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament" in Oxford Companion to the Bible. Eds. Bruce Metzger and Michael Coogan. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 100-102.
Childs, Brevard S.

1993 Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Ellis, E. Earle

1992 The Old Testament in Early Christianity: Canon and Interpretation in the Light of Modern Research. Grand Rapid: Baker (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1991).

Freedman, D. N.

1976 "Canon of the OT" in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume. Ed. Keith Crim et al. Nashville: Abingdon, pp. 130-136.

Harrison, R. K.

1969 "The Old Testament Canon" in Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp. 260-288.

Metzger, Bruce

1993 "Bible" in Oxford Companion to the Bible. Eds. Bruce Metzger and Michael Coogan. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 78-80.

Pfeiffer, R. H.

1962 "Canon of the OT" in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. Ed. George A. Buttrick, et al. New York: Abingdon Press, pp. 498-520.

Sanders, James A.

1972 Torah and Canon. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

1987 From Sacred Story to Sacred Text. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
1992 "Canon: Hebrew Bible" in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 1. Ed. David Noel Freedman, et al. New York: Doubleday, pp. 837-852.
Sarna, Nahum

1993 "Canon: Order of Books in the Hebrew Bible" in Oxford Companion to the Bible. Eds. Bruce Metzger and Michael Coogan. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 98-100.


1. See "Bible," by Bruce Metzger (p. 79), and "Eastern Orthodoxy and the Bible," by Demetrios J. Constantelos (pp. 174-176), in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, eds. Bruce Metzger and Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

2. See Metzger, "Bible," in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (1993). Also was known under the name of Joseph ben Gorion, Josippon was a revision of Josephus' Antiquities, expanded with legendary material, covering Jewish history from 539 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.

3. See Richard Coggins, "Samaritans" in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (1993), pp. 671-73).

4. See Robert T. Anderson, "Samaritans," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 5. Ed. David Noel Freedman, et al. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), pp. 940-947.

5. Callimachus, "the learned cataloguer of books in the great library at Alexandria," cited by Bruce Metzger in The Text of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 5, n. 2.

6. Figures are taken from Sanders (1992), p. 842, who references D. Barthelemy's 1984 catalog of manuscripts and fragments. Sanders comments on the implications of the DSS finds are particularly cogent and have informed the brief analysis here.

7. Sanders, 1992, p. 842, citing his own research and publications.

8. J. P. Lewis, "What Do We Mean by Jabneh?" Journal of Bible and Religion 32:125-32 (1964). Cited in Sanders, 1992.

9. Sanders 1992, p. 848.

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