The Old Testament Canon (John Piper)

Which Books Make Up The Bible And Why?
The Old Testament Canon

The Meaning of “Canon”

The word “canon” means straight staff, or measuring rod, and then a guide or a model or a test of truth or beauty.

Galatians 6:16

And those who will walk by this rule (kanon), peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.

The earliest use is the sense of a group of books that function as a rule or measuring rod of faith and life: Council of Laodicea in ad 363 (Schaff-Herzog, I, 385):

No psalms of private authorship can be read in the churches, nor uncanonical books, but only the canonicalbooks of the Old and New Testaments.

Jewish Understanding of Canon between the Testaments

Other Jewish books besides the ones we have in our Old Testament were written after the Old Testament times. These include:

The First Book of Esdras
The Second Book of Esdras
Tobit
Judith
The Addition to the Book of Esther
The Wisdom of Solomon
Ecclesiastitcus (or Sirach)
Baruch
The Letter of Jeremiah
The Prayer of Azariah
Suzanna
Bel and The Dragon
The Prayer of Manasseh
The First Book of the Maccabees
The Second Book of the Maccabees

The Jews did not accord to the Apocrypha the authority of the canonical books.

The Rabbinical literature (Babylonian Talmud, Yomah 9b):

After the latter prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi had died, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel, but they still availed themselves of the bath quol.

1 Maccabees 4:45-46 (about 100 bc) on the cessation of prophecy:

So they tore down the altar and stored the stone in a convenient place on the temple hill until there should come a prophet to tell what to do with them.

1 Maccabees 9:27:

He refers to great distress “such as had not been since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them.”

Josephus, Against Apion 1:41 (Josephus born ad 37/38)

From Artaxerxes [end of OT era] to our own times a complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets.

Note: He knew the writings of the Apocrypha but did not regard them as canonical.

The Make-Up of the Jewish Canon

The Hebrew canon has traditionally had 24 books which include all of our 39 and no more, and these are divided into three sections: Law, Prophets, and Writings (Tanach: Torah, Nebiim, Chetuvim)

Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy

Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel (1/2), Kings (1/2), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, The Minor Prophets (= one book: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi)

Writings: Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah (= one book), Chronicles (1/2)

Thus the canon of the Jews began with Genesis and ended with 2 Chronicles, not (as we have it today) with Malachi. Our order follows the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint, but the earliest Christian witnesses as well as Josephus and Philo (who used the LXX but did not accord the Apocrypha authority) show that the Apocryphal books included in the LXX were not counted as canonical.

New Testament Pointers to the Existence and Extent of the Old Testament Canon

Paul assumed the legitimacy of the “Scriptures” that were being taught to Jewish children.

2 Timothy 3:14-15

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

There is no record of any dispute between Jesus and the Jewish leaders of his day over what the extent of the Scriptures was. He seemed to assume that their Bible was his Bible, and he made remarkable claims about its authority (“The Scripture cannot be broken,” John 10:35).

The three-part Jewish division of the Old Testament was assumed by Jesus.

Luke 24:44

Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”

The Jewish order of the closed Jewish canon is assumed by Jesus.

Luke 11:49-51

“Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute, that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary.’”

But chronologically the last martyr in the Old Testament was Uriah the Son of Shemaiah, whose death is described inJeremiah 26:20-23. He died during the reign of Jehoiakim who reigned from 609 to 598 bc.

However in 2 Chronicles, the last book of the Jewish OT canon, there was a Zechariah killed in the temple court.

Then the Spirit of God took possession of Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest; and he stood above the people, and said to them, “Thus says God, ‘Why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has forsaken you.’” But they conspired against him, and by command of the king they stoned him with stones in the court of the house of the Lord. (2 Chronicles 24:20-21)

This strongly suggests that the canon Jesus was familiar with was the Jewish OT canon that includes the books we have today.

According to one count by Roger Nicole, the New Testament quotes various parts of the Old Testament as divinely authoritative over 295 times, but not once do they cite any statement from the books of the Apocrypha or any other writings as having divine authority. (“New Testament Use of the Old Testament” in Revelation and the Bible, ed. Carl Henry [London: Tyndale Press, 1959], pp. 137-141)

Jude 14-15 does quote 1 Enoch 60:8 and 1:9, and Paul quotes pagan authors in Acts 17:28 and Titus 1:12, but these citations are not said to be from Scripture or to be authoritative because of their sources.

Early Christian Witness to the Completed OT Canon

Melito, Bishop of Sardis, about ad 170:

When I came to the east and reached the place where these things were preached and done, and learnt accurately the books of the Old Testament, I set down the facts and sent them to you. These are their names: five books of Moses, Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kingdoms, two books of Chronicles, the Psalms of David, the Proverbs of Solomon and his Wisdom, Ecclesisastes, the Song of Songs, Job, the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Twelve in a single book, Daniel, Ezekiel, Ezra. (cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 4.26.14)

No Apocryphal books are mentioned, and the only missing book from our OT canon is Esther, which was controversial for some time and may have been suppressed for political reasons at the time because it spoke of a Jewish uprising.

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