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The Canon of the Old Testament

by Rob Vandeweghe  
10/08/2007 / Bible Studies

The word canon is derived from the Greek word kanon ("kanon"), a rod, ruler, staff, or measuring rod. The Biblical canon is the list of books recognized by the leaders of the church, based on objective criteria, to be inspired by God and to authoritatively and accurately express the historical relationship between God and His people.

For the Old Testament, the canon was initially implicit and undisputed. When the Torah was written, it was immediately recognized as inspired by God, handled with great reverence, maintained by the priests and stored in the Ark of the Covenant. Most other books of the Old Testament were handled in the same manner. While the Jewish nation was flourishing under judges and kings, and prophets were recognized as men from God, their history and prophecies were written and protected by the priests and scribes. After the captivities of the two Jewish kingdoms and the scattering of the people this became problematic. Even so, the work was still manageable as the priests in Jerusalem continued to maintain the Scriptures.

The first serious discussion about the canon began with the translation of the Septuagint or LXX (the translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek in Alexandria, Egypt around 285 BC). A number of texts included in the LXX were not part of the Scriptures recognized by Jerusalem. These are mostly writings after 400 BC, whereas Jews in Jerusalem considered Malachi (ca. 450 BC) the last prophet. The Hebrew canon had informally been established before 150 BC; this is corroborated by various rabbinical writings of those days stating "the voice of God had ceased to speak directly." In other words, the prophetic voice had gone quiet, as without prophets there is no new scriptural revelation.

The rise of Christianity (which, in its earliest days, used only the LXX) caused Jewish leaders to recognize the need for a formal canon. Likely by the end of the first century the canon of the Hebrew Old Testament had been officially closed. Some claim this happened at the Council of Jamnia around 100 AD. Most scholars now believe that there was never a council, but that the Rabbinic school at Jamnia became the substitute for the Sanhedrin after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and through the teachings of the school, the canon was fixed in the 70-135 AD period.

The completed canon of the Hebrew Bible contains the same books and texts (in a slightly different order) as the modern Protestant Old Testament. However, in 1546 the Roman Catholic clergy accepted the entirety of the Septuagint as the canon for its Old Testament. Therefore Roman Catholic Bibles contain additional books of the OT Apocrypha (also known as deuterocanonical "second canon"). These are Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (also called Sirach or Ben Sira), Baruch (including the Letter of Jeremiah), First and Second Maccabees, and additions to the books of Esther and Daniel.

The Eastern Orthodox Church has accepted the Septuagint as the definition of the canon for its Old Testament, adding further the books of First Esdras, the Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151, and Third Maccabees, with Fourth Maccabees as an appendix.

Rob VandeWeghe is a skeptic turned Christian by studying the evidence for Christianity. More articles like this by Rob are available at

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